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Culture of Fear Revealed – Disability Abuse Report

9 December 2015 at 3:53 pm
Lina Caneva
A damning Ombudsman's report in Victoria says there’s an entrenched culture of fear in the disability sector, contributing to significant under-reporting of abuse.

Lina Caneva | 9 December 2015 at 3:53 pm


Culture of Fear Revealed – Disability Abuse Report
9 December 2015 at 3:53 pm

A damning Ombudsman's report in Victoria says there is an entrenched culture of fear in the disability sector, contributing to significant under-reporting of abuse.

Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass, in her report tabled in the Victorian Parliament, called for mandatory reporting to an independent oversight body, with responsibility for ensuring that allegations of abuse are appropriately investigated.

Glass said people with disability were afraid to report abuse or neglect, or pursue complaints for fear of loss of services or retribution, and disability workers felt intimidation from peers and managers.

“Workers in disability services are afraid to report potential abuse, for fear of reprisal including loss of shifts or intimidation by supervisors,” Glass said.

“Tellingly, we have reviewed some incidents where workers were criticised for delayed reporting while no action was taken against the worker against whom an allegation was made.”

She said Victoria had a patchwork of oversight bodies and pockets of good practice but no consistency, too many gaps and no ownership of the problem.

“We have systems and processes, but all too often the official response lacks care and compassion for the rights of the individual,” she said.

“The extreme vulnerability of some people with disability will not lessen with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and not everyone will be equipped to take advantage of greater personal choice.

“Advocacy, including building up skills for self advocacy, will continue to be an essential safeguard. There should be safe ways for abuse to be reported, without detriment to the whistleblower. And after a decade of criticisms, the current incident reporting system must finally be made fit for purpose.”

Glass also pointed to hundreds of service providers where she said “change is also sorely needed”.

“While we are seeing good practice in some providers, profound cultural change and constant vigilance is required across the sector to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Victorians with disability,” she said.

“Whether facilities are run directly by the government, funded or regulated, a positive reporting culture is essential. People who make allegations of abuse should feel safe, supported and confident that appropriate action will be taken.

“The agencies involved in recent abuse scandals have learned the hard way – and Victorians with disability have paid an unacceptably high price.”

In 2014, media outlets reported ongoing abuse in facilities for people with disability in Victoria.

In December 2014 the Ombudsman announced a two-phase investigation into the reporting and investigation of allegations of abuse in the disability sector.

Phase One looked at the effectiveness of oversight and it was tabled in June 2015.

The latest report, Phase Two, examined incident reporting and management in the range of environments in which people with disability live in Victoria.

Glass said the second investigation found a service focussed on the process rather than the person, one constantly mindful of strict parameters rather than the best interests of individuals.

“The current system of incident reporting fails at every level. It is not fit for purpose, either in its primary aim of learning and prevention, or its secondary aim of ensuring ‘client safety and wellbeing’,” she said.

Responding to the Victorian Ombudsman’s report into disability abuse, the Victorian Council on Social Service (VCOSS) said too many people with disability were exposed to abuse and neglect.

“The Ombudsman’s forensic analysis demonstrates the importance of improving services and systems of oversight and advocacy to better protect vulnerable people with disability,” Deputy CEO of VCOSS Mary Sayers said.

“In particular we welcome the recommendation for better support for advocacy to ensure people with disability have their rights protected and their and needs listened to. Empowering strong advocacy produces broad benefits that enhance protection for individuals and help improve the system overall.

“Advocacy, at both an individual and systemic level, is essential for the operation of the disability services system especially as it transitions to the National Disability Insurance Scheme.”

Sayers said VCOSS also supported the recommendation for a single, independent oversight body in Victoria to receive, investigate and act upon complaints of abuse.

“The Ombudsman has also recommended better and consistent protections for whistleblowers and measures to achieve the cultural change needed if we are to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to the abuse of people with disability,” she said.

“Mandatory reporting by service providers of serious incidents of abuse or neglect will be an important improvement.”

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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