A disability advocate has detailed harrowing stories of abuse against some of Australia’s most vulnerable people – from physical assaults to being put in cages – by those paid by taxpayers to care for them.
Tim Chate, a solicitor with the Intellectual Disability Rights Service, told a Senate inquiry a wheelchair-bound, non-verbal client was attacked by a worker at a group home in an incident that attracted no consequences, despite being witnessed by another person.
“A staff member was seen to grab them by the hair, bang their head against a chair and say ‘if you’re going to hit me, this is what you’re going to get back,” Mr Chate said on Tuesday at the inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.
This masthead last month revealed the commission issued just one fine and banned only one provider and 22 individuals despite more than 8000 complaints being lodged in the two years to June 30, with no further action taken in 47 per cent of cases. More than 1000 of the complaints related to abuse or neglect.
NDIS quality and safeguards commissioner Graeme Head told the committee last week the commission had “recently issued a further infringement notice”, was investigating 170 matters and was increasing its use of compliance notices.
“We do not require a complaint in order to take action,” Mr Head said.
Mr Chate detailed in a written submission how disability workers had failed to account for money spent from a National Disability Insurance Scheme recipient’s pension, ripped off one client’s clothes as punishment and made another pay for their coffee and cake.
Another client suffered “significant bruising” and medication misuse at the hands of a disability worker, he wrote, with the commission advising “there had been abuse and neglect” and that a new service provider should be placed in the group home.
Instead, Mr Chate said, the home’s manager – despite having agreed to bring in a new service provider – gave the client’s mother five days to decide whether to stay or “find somewhere else to live”, meaning abandoning their purpose-built room fitted out with NDIA funding.
He said the client remained in the home with their abuser and “as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t been reported [to police].”
“A lot of abuse and neglect goes unreported,” Mr Chate told the hearing, saying complaints tended to be “resolved in favour of the service provider”.
Other incidents included the misuse of physical restraints, his submission said, such as being put in cages.
“The existing powers of the commission are not enough for our clients to get a reasonable outcome,” Mr Chate said.
He said the amounts being spent on NDIS contracts meant recipients often did not have the protection of consumer or tenancy laws, putting them at risk of eviction if they complained.
People with Disability Australia policy and advocacy director Romola Hollywood told the committee on Tuesday the commission “must be resourced sufficiently to carry out its own investigations”, including spot checks on providers “where people are at high risk of abuse due to being isolated”.
Another red flag for investigation should be “significant under-spends” in NDIS plans, she said.
Mr Head said there were “a wide array of triggers for an investigation and very extensive powers” at the commission, “both information-gathering powers and enforcement actions”.
“I’m not reluctant at all to use the infringement notice powers of the act, where appropriate,” he said.
Greens disability spokesman Jordon Steele-John, who is on the Senate committee, said it was “not acceptable” that the commission had taken action is so few cases and that the regulator appeared to be “passive” with “a very low profile in the community”.
“If you have the powers, why aren’t you using them?” he said. “What we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg of people who are able to make a complaint,” Senator Steele-John said. “It is endemic in our society.”
He said the commission’s processes did not take into account the “power imbalance” between service providers and recipients in navigating a “bureaucratic and complex” system and called for a more proactive approach.
“We need a national, comprehensive safeguard mechanism that covers all disabled people, not just NDIS participants who make up just 10 per cent of the 4 millions Australians with a disability.”
Labor’s NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said the Coalition government had “done nothing to put back to work a disability watchdog that is acting more like a sleepy purse poodle”.
NDIS Minister Stuart Robert referred questions to the commission.
A spokesman for the commission said it “takes all complaints seriously” and some complaints were criminal matters that “should be investigated by the appropriate authorities”.
“All alleged criminal conduct matters that the NDIS Commission are made aware of are referred to the police,” the spokesman said. “The NDIS Commission cannot undertake criminal investigations.”
The federal budget included an additional $92.9 million for the commission over the next four years, to enable it to hire about 100 extra staff.
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