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Independent Inquiry Call Over Yooralla Abuse

25 November 2014 at 10:44 am
Xavier Smerdon
Calls for an independent inquiry into the Australian disability sector have been made amid ongoing allegations of abuse and the mismanagement of complaints by a major disability service provider.

Xavier Smerdon | 25 November 2014 at 10:44 am


Independent Inquiry Call Over Yooralla Abuse
25 November 2014 at 10:44 am

Calls for an independent inquiry into the Australian disability sector have been made amid ongoing allegations of abuse and the mismanagement of complaints by a major disability service provider.

At the centre of the controversy is disability service provider Yooralla, which has been accused of failing to act properly on complaints of sexual, emotional and financial abuse of its clients at the hands of several employed carers.

The ABC Four Corners program last night aired an extensive report on incidents of abuse at Yooralla dating back to 2010.

The report claimed one of the most serious cases of abuse was committed by carer Vinod Johnny Kumar, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sexually assaulting Jules Anderson.

Anderson, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, identified herself as a victim of Kumar.

The report also aired allegations of mismanagement by Yooralla, who it claimed paid hush money to keep complainants quiet.

Former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said an inquiry into the “huge problem” of abuse in the sector was needed.

“What’s needed is a national independent inquiry because it will have more capacity to obtain evidence than a Parliamentary inquiry,” Innes told Pro Bono Australia News.

“It will require people visiting facilities and taking evidence in a different way that is normally taken.

“The inquiry should be lead by someone, or perhaps a number of key people, with significant knowledge of the disability sector as well as legal expertise who will be viewed positively by the sector.

“I believe the media reports are just the tip of the iceberg. There is no doubt in my mind that these reports are the start of a range of similar incidents across Australia.

“I am aware of a dozen to hundreds of allegations and that’s why we need a national inquiry.

“Currently the reporting regulations in Victoria and NSW are the best in country and that is why we are getting these allegations being raised there first and it’s sad that they have to be raised.”

Innes’ calls for an inquiry were backed by both the Victorian Government and Opposition who both pledged to undertake one after this weekend’s State election.

Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also said questions needed to be answered.

“Australians are rightly shocked by the allegations of abuse in the disability sector”, Shorten said.

“It is important to acknowledge the courage of those who speak out. It is this courage that will ensure that abuse is exposed and those responsible held to account.

“These allegations of violence, abuse and neglect of some of the most vulnerable members of our community are deeply disturbing.

“Labor believes that any allegation of this nature should be investigated fully, and the perpetrators of any crimes brought to justice.

“Labor supports the call by former Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes AM and others for an independent investigation into these serious allegations.”

People With Disability Australia and Women With Disability Australia said they were “outraged” by the revelations contained in the Four Corners report.

“The events exposed in the Four Corners program last night are not a random occurrence confined to Yooralla or the State of Victoria.  Violence against people with disability in institutional and residential settings, including the significantly higher levels of violence experienced by women with disability is Australia’s hidden shame,”  WWDA Executive Director Carolyn Frohmader said.

“We welcome the commitment by the Victorian Government and Opposition to conduct an enquiry into the events at Yooralla.  However, time and again, we have seen State and Territory inquiries focus on violence in specific institutions and residential settings, but the systemic and prevalent nature of this violence across Australia is not addressed.

“We argue that it is time for a national inquiry to address the endemic nature of violence, exploitation and abuse in institutions and residential settings.”

Social policy agency JFA Purple Orange also called for an end to the default commissioning of institutional services around Australia in light of the revelations.

CEO Robbi Williams says institutionalised services may increase the chances of people being abused because they make people invisible to the community.

“We must stop the multi-billion dollar systematic commissioning of services that routinely put vulnerable people into groups where the main people in their lives are those paid to be there,” Williams said.  

“By institutional services we don’t just mean large accommodation and day services congregating vulnerable people; we also mean smaller services like four-person group homes. What makes these services institutional is their practice, where vulnerable people receive services largely away from the eyes of the community and where the main contact into community life is through a paid minder or as a group.

“People in institutional care are much more likely to miss out on meaningful natural relationships that come from being part of the community and regarded as a fellow citizen.”

Questions were also raised  by Four Corners about the response to the allegations by former Yooralla Chair Bruce Bonyhady, who now runs the NDIS.

Bonyhady was Chair of Yooralla for almost a decade until taking up his position at the NDIS in 2013.

He is also a former President of Philanthropy Australia.

Bonyhady defended his handling of complaints while in charge of Yooralla, saying he acted vigilantly when he became aware of allegations of abuse.

“Abuse of the vulnerable is utterly sickening but I’m particularly angered by abuse of people with disabilities by people who are supposed to be their carers. Abuse is totally unacceptable and the full force of the law should be brought to bear on the individuals who committed these crimes,” Bonhyday said.

“I understand how hurt and angry the individuals and their friends and families are – I would feel exactly the same.

“I cannot comment on events at Yooralla that came to light or where the necessary detailed investigations were completed after I left the Yooralla Board.

“What I can say categorically is that I was always vigilant about client safety at Yooralla. When issues of abuse came to light I acted.”

Bonyhady said when the Kumar case revealed gaps in Yooralla’s risk management framework, Brian Joyce was appointed and given total authority to investigate by the Yooralla Board and the Victorian Department of Human Services.

“At the time I left the Board, Yooralla management was on track to implement his recommendations,” he said.

“I strongly supported steps to strengthen Yooralla’s management capability and expertise, including the appointment of Professor Jeffrey Chan as Chief Practitioner – Quality, innovation and Safeguards, who was previously the Chief Practitioner for Disability in Queensland.

“It is a sad and unfortunate fact that there are still no 100 per cent fail-safe mechanisms for supporting people with disabilities that ensure their safety at all times.

“I know this from personal experience as the father of two young men with disabilities as well as in my professional and volunteering roles.

“The only way is to continually strive for best practice and make sure people are vigilant about how abuse can occur and how to do all in our power to prevent it. This requires leadership, accountability and a preparedness to learn.

“For the past 30 years I have served on numerous disability boards and committees mostly in a volunteer capacity. I remain totally committed to improving the lives of people with disability.”

On Monday the Board of Yooralla announced that it had accepted the resignation of CEO Sanjib Roy.

Chairman of Directors at Yooralla, Dr Wayne Ramsay, thanked Roy for his service.

“Mr Roy leaves the organisation in good shape and the board wishes him every success for the future”, Ramsey said.

“The board respects his decision to leave now that the organisational changes in response to the events of 2011 have been completed. Mr Roy has seen the organisation through its darkest days and we thank him for the leadership he has provided for the last six years.”

In a statement released just days before his resignation, Roy said Yooralla was “in the strongest position ever with regards to client wellbeing and safety”.

“Yooralla is deeply sorry for the distress of clients affected by the inappropriate, and in some cases criminal behaviour, of a small number of staff… We continue to provide support and assistance to these clients and their families,” Roy said.

“Yooralla has more than 2,000 employees providing support to more than 7,000 clients. Procedures, systems and processes are now in place to minimise the risk of similar situations in the future. Yooralla has implemented a broad range of measures designed to minimise risk and strengthen protective measures.

“Yooralla actively encourages staff to report abuse. Yooralla has invested in increased staff training and awareness about safeguarding client wellbeing, strengthening procedures for recruitment, staff supervision and appraisal, mandatory reporting, the escalation protocols and by investing in new technology to facilitate accurate incident reporting and to allow for early identification of any potential concerns.”

Dr Sherene Devanesen has been appointed Acting CEO of Yooralla pending an executive search process which will commence shortly.

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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