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Abuse Bigger Than Yooralla. Inquiry - NOW

27 November 2014 at 10:35 am
Xavier Smerdon
The Federal Government is shirking its responsibilities to Australians with disability by denying them a national independent inquiry into abuse in institutions, writes systemic advocate for inclusive practices, systemic advocate for inclusive practices,Tricia Malowney.

Xavier Smerdon | 27 November 2014 at 10:35 am


Abuse Bigger Than Yooralla. Inquiry - NOW
27 November 2014 at 10:35 am

The Federal Government is shirking its responsibilities to Australians with disability by denying them a national independent inquiry into abuse in institutions, writes systemic advocate for inclusive practices, systemic advocate for inclusive practices,Tricia Malowney.

The Four Corners program, which aired on the ABC on Monday 24 November, brought to public attention an issue which has been an open secret in the disability community for quite some time.  That is the systemic and systematic abuse of people with disabilities.  

Without going into detail it is clear that vulnerable people have not only been abused by those who are supposed to provide services to them, but they have also not been supported when the abuse has been reported, nor protected from ongoing abuse.  

However, we also need to acknowledge that abuse is a "nice" term.  Let's call it what it is, it is rape and sustained violence against women and men with disabilities and it is also neglect, leading to death.  While there are many who are critical of Yooralla, advocates know that the issues are not limited to that organisation, and neither is it limited to Victoria.

Tuesday 25 November, 2014 was White Ribbon Day, a day when people across Australia reaffirm their pledge to end all forms of violence against women and their children. This is a cause which has captured the attention if the nation,  but which sometimes  misses the opportunity to advocate for the most vulnerable – Australians with disabilities and their children.   

I got involved in trying to reduce all forms of violence against Australians with disabilities  because of the number who disclosed the violence perpetrated against them by partners, family members and disability service  sector employees all of  whom are more commonly called "carers".  I had no idea.  The reason that they disclosed the violence to me is because I have a disability, and because I asked how they were going, as I do with everyone.

In another setting, the answer would be fine…in these circumstances, they thought I was also being abused.  Apparently, this is how information on abused is shared.  Don't tell the powerful, you may lose access to your services, or worse, the perpetrators will find out and the abuse would get worse.

At first I didn't know what to do, or who to turn to for help.  I began to look at accessible services available  – then few and far between – but a couple of good outreach services and centres against sexual assault who I knew would be able provide support.    

After that, I began looking at the issue from a systemic perspective, to try and influence change in how mainstream services were ensuring that people with disabilities could be supported. More and more decent disability support workers would also raise issues with me and I would encourage and support them to take a stand.  But it's difficult when you are amongst the lowest paid workers in Australia, and you need a job.

I was in Canberra at the National Disability Awards on Tuesday, where I was a finalist in the Lesley Hall Lifetime Achievement Award for my work in trying to reduce family violence against women with disabilities and their children.  I congratulate Bill Bradley for his well deserved win, but I am also sorry that I didn't get the chance to raise the issue of the abuse which is systemically and systematically perpetrated against Australians with disabilities.

And I can't help wondering what Lesley Hall would make of the response to the ABC program. I hope that she would be pleased to see that we are prepared to take on those who hope the issue will disappear.

As soon as we finished with the formal award presentations, and had congratulated the winners, I spent most of the evening speaking to other advocates about the need for a response that recognises that the abuse that is perpetrated against Australians with disabilities:

•   Is systematic

•   Is systemic

•   Is under reported

•   Is without appropriate response

•   Is without  appropriate legal recourse due to systemic barriers in the legal system

•   Is considered relatively unimportant  because  of negative attitudes towards Australians with disabilities

•   Is not limited to one organisation

•   Is Australia wide and

•   Needs a national enquiry – preferably a Royal Commission

So we have had some response from the major political parties. Bill Shorten, the Opposition Leader, has said that Labor supports calls for an independent investigation  into "these serious allegations".  Hmm, a bit weak, given how we think this is a matter not limited to a single institution.

In Parliament on Tuesday, the Greens Rachel Siewert asked  the Government to launch an enquiry into the neglect, violence – including gender-based violence – and abuse of people with disabilities in residential and  institutional settings.  Senator Siewert also pointed out recommendations from the United Nations for Australia to investigate and address as an urgent priority, violence against people with disabilities! Particularly women with disabilities in institutonal settings.  Wow, that's a step in the right direction.

So what was the response from the Coalition Government.  Well basically the message to my ears was this is a matter for the States and Territories until the full roll out of the NDIS…. So apparently if you are being abused, raped or experiencing any KWD form of violence, and you have a disability, stiff bickies,  the Australian Government couldn't give a stuff.  Senator Fifield did mention the Victorian  enquiry into institutional sexual abuse, as though that will solve the issues.

Well as the person who is supposed to have our backs in Canberra, I must inform Senator Fifield that Australians with disabilities are not children, and to suggest that our needs are being addressed by an enquiry in one State, which is not even looking at the abuse and rape of adults, just goes to show how out of touch he is.  

Without actually saying this directly, Senator Fifield has in effect said that this is a Victorian  issue, that the learnings from the NDIS  launch sites will determine future actions and that until around 2019, Australians with disabilities will just have to put up with abuse, rape, torture and neglect. Talk about the ratbag right!

In the meantime, I know that the majority of service providers have the best interests of us at heart, but be advised that you will be called to account for the actions of your staff, and your failure to take the actions that ensure the safety of your clients.

If you have not already done so, I have some suggestions for actions you can take now. You need to show how  you are ensuring that Australians with disabilities are:

•   Protected from predatory behaviour

•   Involved in the selection process when employing staff who will provide them with services

•   Provided with information that enables them to recognise violence, abuse and inappropriate behaviour

•   Provided with appropriate complaint mechanisms to enable them to report violence and abuse

•   Empowered to live the lives they want to live

•   Free to live in the community

•   Not forced to live with people they don't  want to live with

•   Not segregated from the rest of the community in congregate care (as is now happening again in South Australia where people can now live with "their own kind")

In addition, organisations must  have:

•   Policies and procedures in place to encourage whistleblowers to safely come forward.

•   Induction programs which clearly outline rights and responsibilities of clients and employees

•   A culture which respects all clients and employees

•   Bystander action which makes it quite clear that everyone should be intolerant of anything that  belittles women, whether it is a joke or a derogatory comment or questionable depictions of women.

There has recently been a Defence Taskforce  which has called  for a National Inquiry into abuse in the Military.  I am calling for a similar response to abuse against  Australians with disabilities. Or are we less deserving because we are considered to be leaners, not lifters, bludgers who are users, non tax paying drains on the public purse.

I am happy to discuss this issue with Mitch Fifield..  I tried to catch him at the National Disability Awards, but for some reason he kept avoiding me. Or is it just that I wasn't fast enough to catch him on my callipers and crutches. Funny how I managed to catch up with Jenny Macklin and Chris Milne and Rachel Siewert.

What do we want? A national enquiry into the systemic abuse of Australians with disabilities

When do we want it?  Now

About the author: Tricia Malowney is a regular contributor to Pro Bono Australia News and a former President of the Victorian Disability Services Board. In November 2013, Malowney was awarded the inaugural Brenda Gabe Leadership Award for her outstanding contribution to women with disabilities in Victoria. She was the inaugural Chair of the Royal Women’s Hospital Disability Reference Group and was able to influence policy and planning on key issues including the Family Violence Protection Act 2006. She has successfully lobbied for women with disabilities to be included in the United Nations Population Health Research.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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