Concerns raised about a 'culture of cover-ups' in group homes

Norman Hermant

Parents of disabled people in group homes say they are concerned a culture of covering up serious incidents and avoiding police scrutiny pervades the sector.


LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Some of the most vulnerable members of our society are people with disabilities. For those living in group homes, there's a high risk of neglect and abuse and advocates and families say there's a culture where incidents are covered up. After a Senate inquiry heard tale after tale of abuse in group homes, there were hopes this election campaign might draw attention to its recommendations, including a call for a royal commission. But so far, there's been silence from both major parties, even as advocates say the suffering continues. Social affairs correspondent Norman Hermant reports.

NORMAN HERMANT, REPORTER: On the South Coast of New South Wales, all they have now of a brother and a son are memories and some of the possessions so treasured in life.

LAURICE HYAM, MICHAEL'S MOTHER: We brought his bongo drums.

FAMILY MEMBER: Oh, look, (inaudible) all his instruments.


LAURICE HYAM: And his bugle.

NORMAN HERMANT: Michael Hyam lived with low-functioning autism. By all accounts, he was at times a handful, but also a delight.

LAURICE HYAM: He was so full of fun and humour. He made a lot of people smile in lots of instance, made a lot of people tear their hair out in instances too.

NORMAN HERMANT: Michael lived for most of his 45 years in residential care. During his time in group homes, he was sexually assaulted by another resident. His mother, Laurice, remembers other incidents when his collarbone was broken and also his foot. It was at this group home near Wollongong where Michael died in 2014.

LAURICE HYAM: We miss him dreadfully, especially at Christmas times. And Easter bunny times. Different days we used to have, special.

NORMAN HERMANT: His family says the group home failed in its duty of care to stop Michael from harming himself. Despite a gorging compulsion known to staff, he was able to get a hold of a large container of chocolate spread.

And what did he do?

LAURICE HYAM: Choked on it, swallowed it, tried to get as much down his throat as he possibly could in the shortest amount of time before he'd be discovered with it.

NORMAN HERMANT: Michael choked to death. A coronial inquest concluded he died by misadventure. His family also took the case to the NSW Ombudsman and eventually new rules were put in place to ensure food cupboards stay locked to residents. Laurice believes most of what happened to Michael in the home was kept from her family.

LAURICE HYAM: Anything that was a bit of a bother just didn't happen. "We're gonna hide this. We don't want to lose our jobs." Of a lot of stuff was pushed under the carpet. Quite a lot.

NORMAN HERMANT: In 2014, the ABC's Four Corners program exposed shocking cases of abuse and violence in the disability sector. That was part of the impetus for a Senate inquiry which found covering up mistreatment and neglect in disability group homes is widespread.

JULIE PIANTO, INQUIRY WITNESS: It's a culture and I despair about it.

CHRISTINA RYAN, INQUIRY WITNESS: People are hidden away. The rest of the community can forget about them. They're out of sight and they are very much out of mind.

NORMAN HERMANT: Greens Senator Rachel Siewert led the inquiry.

RACHEL SIEWERT, GREENS SENATOR: Even though you know that it's happening because you've spoken to people already, you can't help be shocked and overwhelmed, almost, by the extent and the experiences that were outlined to us.

NORMAN HERMANT: The Senate inquiry recommendations included mandatory reporting rules, a national complaints watchdog, and most importantly, a royal commission.

Those recommendations haven't been adopted. Mandatory reporting of incidents in care would especially be welcomed by the Fenton family, whose daughter Jo was born with a chromosomal deletion and is intellectually disabled. She lives in a group home called Karinya in Port Macquarie on the Mid-North Coast of NSW.

One night a week, she comes to her parents' house to sleep over.

Jo's family says there have been unexplained injuries.

GAIL FENTON, JO'S MOTHER: She was hopping in the bath and there was a burn mark on her thigh. So then we knew. Yeah, so it wasn't communicated to us by anybody. I don't know that anyone knew, actually.

NORMAN HERMANT: The families of four of the five residents living at Karinya have spoken to 7.30. They have all expressed concerns over the care provided by the home, including Jenny Wooster. Her son Daniel has also suffered injuries with no explanation about how they happened.

JENNY WOOSTER, DANIEL'S MOTHER: I feel absolutely disgusted at the moment. Absolutely disgusted.

NORMAN HERMANT: Daniel lives with cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. He's also epileptic and suffers seizures. Jenny says she's used to seeing him bruised, but things took a turn for the worse at his last birthday when he turned up with a noticeably chipped tooth.

Did they know about it before you pointed it out to them?

JENNY WOOSTER: No. Didn't know about it at all. No, they couldn't tell me anything. They don't know how it had happened. They thought he might have fell over and bumped himself or whatever.

NORMAN HERMANT: The NSW Department of Family and Community Services says it's working on improvements at Karinya and families are now given regular update. 

The stories from the group home here in Port Macquarie are not unique. When the Ombudsman's office in NSW compiled the latest numbers of reoprted violence and abuse in group homes, the figures went way beyond anything they'd anticipated.

It's the first time the Ombudsman looked at these numbers. In nine months ending in August last year, 437 incidents were reported from disability group homes. These weren't trivial offences. 38 per cent were physical abuse, 20 per cent were neglect, 17 per cent were sexual assaults or misconduct.

So far, neither main party has addressed the Senate inquiry recommendations in this election campaign.

RACHEL SIEWERT: This is ongoing and it's happening. It'll be happening every day. Every day since we handed down our Senate report, there will have been abuse or violence or neglect of a person with a disability around this country because it's ongoing.

NORMAN HERMANT: For Laurice Hyam, those protections will come too late for her son, but not for others.

LAURICE HYAM: I'd like to see things happen better for the future. Better strictures, better communication, better staffing - improvement all around.

LEIGH SALES: That report from Norman Hermant.