Staff were largely powerless to stop residents at the home being assaulted by other clients, commission told
The culture at a disability group home in Victoria was so bad that staff couldn’t stop residents being assaulted by other clients and violence had become “normal”, the disability royal commission has heard.
The inquiry is this week examining allegations of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services, focusing on two group homes run by the national disability insurance scheme provider Life Without Barriers.
On Thursday, the mother of a former resident and Victoria’s office of the public advocate told the inquiry about the “high level” of violence in the home.
Over the period in question, which spanned most of the past decade, the homes were under the remit of Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services before being transferred to the NDIS.
In one case, one of the five residents had “a chair broken over her head by another resident” and her finger broken as she tried to protect herself, the inquiry was told.
The commission heard that an X-ray – which revealed the fracture – was only carried out four days after the alleged assault, while no concussion test was conducted.
Rebecca*, in her 40s, who is autistic and lives with an intellectual disability, was a victim of violence at the home until she moved out in November 2019, her mother told the hearing.
Catherine* said her daughter was a “gentle person with a small frame” who might scream if she was assaulted but would “not say ‘stop’ or ask someone to go away if they were bothering her”.
In one incident, Rebecca was dragged along the carpet by another resident, causing burns, the inquiry heard.
A report later found the support worker had heard Rebecca scream before discovering her on the floor with “a bruised and skinned knee and some of her hair pulled out”.
“To my knowledge, [Life Without Barriers] did not contact a doctor to examine Rebecca,” Catherine said.
“Over a week later, I took Rebecca to the doctor myself and the carpet burn on her knee had become infected.
“I was told by someone from LWB that doctors were not contacted because Rebecca did not have an open wound, yet Rebecca developed a scab on her knee shortly after the incident.
“Later, LWB acknowledged that not seeking medical attention for Rebecca was an oversight.”
On several occasions Catherine said she found unexplained bruises on Rebecca’s body.
“For example, one day when she came home from a visit she walked through the door and repeatedly said ‘ow’, and took off her top to show me some bruises,” she said.
Catherine did not blame the home’s support workers, saying they appeared to be trying their best and were also fearful of some residents.
Sometimes they would simply lock Rebecca in the staff room to protect her, the inquiry heard.
Catherine also did not blame the residents had attacked her daughter.
But she did question why the provider had replaced one resident, who had left after several violent incidents, with another person who could be aggressive.
This was done without any consultation with families, Catherine said.
“Again, I am not criticising the support workers, who did an amazing job in the circumstances, but the managers and those higher up in the organisation just did not seem to me to understand the gravity of the situation,” Catherine said.
Catherine said she felt “conflict and even violence” had become “normal and had been accepted as a fact of life rather than being something that should be addressed in a concerted long-term and consultative manner”.
Paul*, the father of another resident in his 40s, Robert*, said his son had been spared from the violence but that the situation was “traumatic”.
“He started ripping his clothes, which is a sign that he’s very anxious,” he said.
Sue Rewell, from the office of the public advocate, also said staff were not adequately supported by management.
“I think that all staff that lived in the house had the best interests of the residents at heart, but they were not given the support, and sometimes they were not given techniques to deal with the resident-to-resident abuse,” she said.
The chair of the commission, Ronald Sackville, said the case raised questions about the pay and conditions of support workers, “who have a very onerous job”.
“It cannot be easy to operate in an environment such as the particular house that we are talking about,” he said.
The Victorian home has since been taken over by another provider at the request of the families of the existing residents, including Robert’s father, Paul.
Earlier this week, the inquiry heard about the alleged neglect of residents of group home in NSW, and claims about the provider’s response to the sexual assault of a resident that occurred outside the house.
Life Without Barriers will give evidence next week.
* Names are pseudonyms used by the commission for privacy reasons
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636