Disability Abuse - Attacked with a Paper Sword
of Principles and Platitudes
by Jackson Ryan Partners, November 2016
Following 12 months of public hearings, receiving submission and deliberating, the Family and Community Development Committee of the Parliament of Victoria handed down its report into Abuse in Disability Services in May 2016.
Like the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus spoke to the masses and said ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth’, the Government’s response, which was released on 23 November, should have been received with confidence because it was said with the authority of the Government.
However the response was not said with any real commitment. Instead it promotes yet more principles and articulates a set of platitudes that convey nothing but false hope. The intention to establish a Code of Conduct for disability workers will do what? A Code of Conduct has existed for Victoria’s public sector for many years. The Code is meant to guide the behaviour of public sector employees. However, because it lacks the authority of what will happen if breached, and the will of managers to prosecute its intention, it is a paper sword.
So what will a Code of Conduct for disability workers really achieve? What will the new catchcry of Zero Tolerance add that cannot already be addressed through the provisions of Victoria’s Disability Act 2006 and the criminal law? What will yet another principle add to the 35 principles already written into the Disability Act? And, where are the teeth in the actions identified under the Access to Justice heading?
The Government’s response totally ignores what ought to happen to perpetrators of abuse. It ignores the failure of the current watchdogs to prosecute abusers and to apply penalties. Instead, it gives false hope by applauding an obviously failed system, which led to the inquiry in the first place.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the government department responsible for disability, is quick to fend off criticism and complaints. Senior managers and staff alike ignore the department’s Values statement so prominently displayed in offices across the state. Although a Complaints Unit exists, like the mother fox it will not eat its own.
Despite the criticisms so forcefully expressed to the Inquiry as to the failure of the Disability Services Commissioner (DSC), the Government has responded by providing him with own motion investigation powers. Yet the DSC has had the power to investigate complaints for nine years and has been criticised for his reluctance to use that power. But in any event the DSC will still lack teeth, no power to direct, prosecute or enforce.
Equally, the Government’s response to the Inquiry Report has been to ignore the fact that neither the Ombudsman nor the Victorian Inspectorate, which is headed by a QC, has any powers to direct, prosecute or enforce when it comes to the abuse of people with disabilities. Thus, abusers can go unhindered unless the criminal law is applied. As such, the watchdog network in disability has no power to impose penalties on people who abuse.
So, despite the illusion of the Government getting tough on abuse and abusers in the disability sector, we have a mealy-mouthed response to what Victoria’ Public Advocate once described, when reporting on abuse in disability accommodation as the ‘tip of the iceberg.’ We have a more of the same softly softly approach, despite the Committee stating that ‘many parents reported that their concerns about suspected abuse were repeatedly ignored or dismissed by the Department and service providers.’
By contrast, Victoria’s Occupational Health and Safety Act provides Workplace Inspectors the authority to enter, inspect, direct and close down as direct action to protect the safety and wellbeing of Victorian workers. Yet, the best the Government can come up with in terms protecting people with disability against abuse is a platitude of Zero Tolerance, a new principle to be inserted in the Disability Act, more reporting, more information, more training and the illusion that the Charter of Human Rights actually provides protection. It is a statement of intent and carries with it no directive, prosecuting or enforcement powers.
High-sounding principles and platitudes neither stop nor protect against abuse. They just add another layer to the more-of-the same principle. If abuse in the disability sector is to be tackled with vigour and intent and people with disabilities are to be afforded justice, then let us see the Government provide the same protection given to Victorian workers.
In terms of addressing the abuse that has been occurring in the disability sector for years, the meek approach will not work, and people with disabilities shall not inherit the right, as required by the Disability Act, ‘to live free from abuse, neglect or exploitation.’
So, come on Minister Foley, what about becoming bold and enforcing the law, rather than fiddling around the edges and trying to fend off abuse with a paper sword.
LISA Comment: The residents of group home (SDA) services are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect behind closed doors. The most common is "Mindercare". As there is little regular service evaluation, at best it is families who see the questionable activities, yet they are frequently told they are wrong. And, when they attempt to have their findings independently evaluated, they face united avoidance and denial by bureaucratic bodies who protect each other. Families eventually find there is nowhere to go, and give up. Which is just what the avoidance and denial bodies are bent on acheiving.