Police launch probe into Aspect autism service amid abuse claims, box scandal

Police have launched a criminal investigation into the alleged abuse of people with autism at one of Australia's leading disability services.

It comes in the wake of a scandal involving a large wooden box built to lock up vulnerable clients at the organisation's autism centre in Melbourne's south-east.

Fairfax Media has confirmed that allegations of criminal acts perpetrated against Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) clients, most of whom cannot talk, were this week referred to Victoria Police.

It is understood the police investigation centres on serious allegations of staff-to-client abuse at Aspect Heatherton.

Victoria's Disability Services Commissioner started investigating Aspect after whistleblower Karen Burgess raised alarm about a "coffin-like" enclosure designed to contain clients as young as 16.

The watchdog has been interviewing Aspect staff but called in police on Monday, saying there were allegations that required criminal investigation. It has suspended its probe while detectives step in.

Under police investigation: Aspect Heatherton, where a "desensitising" box was built to lock up clients.

Under police investigation: Aspect Heatherton, where a "desensitising" box was built to lock up clients. Photo: Supplied

Aspect chief executive Adrian Ford.

Aspect chief executive Adrian Ford. Photo: Supplied

Whistleblower Karen Burgess raised concerns about the purpose-built box.

Whistleblower Karen Burgess raised concerns about the purpose-built box. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

A Victoria Police spokeswoman said the force had met with the Office of the Disability Services Commissioner and would conduct a "full investigation".

Meanwhile, the Department of Human Services is separately reviewing the organisation after a serious incident at the site, flagging it could slash Aspect's $4.8 million state government funding if adverse findings are made in any investigation.

On Wednesday, the Victorian government said it was "gravely concerned" by allegations against Aspect and described abuse of vulnerable people as appalling.

"The government will not hesitate to take the strongest action against anyone who has been involved in abusive behaviour in our disability care system," a spokesman for Disability Minister Martin Foley said.  

"Victoria Police is investigating these matters and as such, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Aspect chief executive Adrian Ford said the company would cooperate fully with police. "We have nothing to hide," he said.

"Aspect has not been informed of any allegations uncovered by the Disability Services Commission that warrant police investigation."

In a statement last week, Mr Ford moved to distance Aspect from the box scandal, saying the company had just recently taken over the site from its former operator, Alpha Autism. He said the "desensitising​" box was removed within 24 hours of head office becoming aware.

Fairfax Media has confirmed the box was removed five months after Aspect assumed full responsibility from Alpha. 

Aspect said its own investigation found there was no evidence the purpose-built box was used on a client.

The organisation has not apologised for the box or for failing to report it to authorities after quietly destroying it in April.

Mr Ford said people with autism sometimes experienced challenges with sensory overload and may choose to remove themselves to a quiet place. But the box at Heatherton was "in no way, shape or form suitable for its purpose", he said.

Following revelations by Fairfax Media the Department of Human Services was instructed to also begin inquiring into the box matter, while its wide-ranging review into Aspect continued.

"The department has a current quality-of-support review in progress and will work with Victoria Police to ensure this does not impact on their investigations," a DHS spokesman said on Wednesday.

The Disability Services Commissioner said it had initiated four investigations in the past 12 months, two relating to allegations of abuse and two involving service quality.

The commissioner is prohibited from commenting on specific investigations.

from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/police-launch-probe-into-aspect-autism-service-amid-abuse-claims-box-scandal-20151014-gk8nlj.html