The Disability Royal Commission: Public Hearing 13 – Preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services (a Case Study)

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability (Disability Royal Commission) held Public Hearing 13 – Preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services (a Case Study) (Public Hearing 13) from 24 to 28 May 2021 and again on 10 September 2021. Public Hearing 13 examined a case study on the experiences of people with a disability residing in accommodation at Sunnyfield Disability Services (Sunnyfield). This was the first hearing examining how providers of disability services prevent and respond to violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with a disability.

On 5 April 2022, the Royal Commission published a Report on Public Hearing 13, and found “Sunnyfield failed to protect residents of the House against violence and abuse and was responsible for significant shortcomings in the services provided to residents”.

This article provides a summary of Public Hearing 13 and what steps Disability Service Providers and other organisations should take to safeguard children and vulnerable people to keep them safe from harm.

The Background to Public Hearing 13

On 1 May 2017, Sunnyfield commenced managing a property in Western Sydney, New South Wales, which housed four residents with a disability (the House). Sunnyfield’s operations according to witnesses presented as “chaotic” due to a poor handover with the previous provider and a lack of understanding of the needs of the residents. Concerns were raised for the care of the vulnerable residents almost immediately after Sunnyfield took over the property. These complaints went unanswered and unresolved by Sunnyfield. Regular complaints were made to Sunnyfield, the New South Wales Ombudsman (Ombudsman) who had oversight of disability services prior to the commencement of the NDIS, and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner (NDIS Commissioner) between June 2017 and June 2019 raising concerns for professional misconduct, bullying, racism, intimidation, deceit, physical abuse and poor performance of staff roles.

It was not until 25 June 2019, that two Sunnyfield staff were suspended pending an investigation. An independent investigation commenced on 2 July 2019 and substantiated allegations against the staff members of physical and verbal abuse, mismanagement of medication and funding, and breaches of Sunnyfield’s contracts and policies. The independent investigator also raised systemic concerns which included a culture of blame and fear, as well as lack of trust and lack of respect between staff at the House. New South Wales Police investigated the allegations, and charged the workers with multiple counts of common assault and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. All charges were later dismissed, due to lack of evidence.

As part of the Public Hearing, the NDIS Commissioner and the Ombudsman’s actions in relation to the complaints were also scrutinised. The Royal Commission found that the Ombudsman had concerns regarding the employment history of staff prior to their employment with Sunnyfield and did not disclose this information to Sunnyfield when it should have, to ensure the safety of Sunnyfield residents. The Disability Royal Commission also found that the NDIS Commissioner had an obligation to visit the House when concerns were raised, and failed to do so. Sunnyfield also had an obligation to provide the independent investigator’s report to the NDIS Commissioner and failed to do so, arguing client legal privilege over the reports. The Disability Royal Commission found no such client legal privilege exists when a determination needed to be made for the resident’s safety and well-being.

Learnings from Public Hearing 13

A number of key concerns arose out of Public Hearing 13, including:

  • a lack of appropriate communication between Sunnyfield and regulatory bodies resulting in complaints remaining unresolved;
  • a lack of choice and control Sunnyfield residents and guardians had over their rights, resulting in unsafe and dangerous practices which caused harm;
  • a lack of safety and security in the House;
  • poor recruitment processes resulting in unsuitable staff working with vulnerable residents, and creating a toxic and deceitful culture amongst staff in the House which was unsafe for residents;
  • poor complaints and feedback procedure where complainants were vilified, targeted and felt as though their concerns were going unheard;
  • policies and procedures were inadequate to detect and prevent violence and abuse occurring in the House; and
  • governance and leadership issues, including no people with lived experience of disability on the board of directors and a leadership team, or did the leadership team appropriately involve residents in decision-making.

Key Takeaways for Organisations

There are a number of key learnings from Public Hearing 13 for Disability Service Providers and other organisations working to safeguard children and vulnerable people.

  • Organisations should ensure the voice of the client is at the forefront of its work to ensure that client’s best interests are met.
  • Organisations should ensure there are effective policies and procedures in place during recruitment to ensure that employees working with vulnerable clients are suitable and do not pose a risk of harm to vulnerable people.
  • Policies and procedures should also be robust in their capacity to ensure oversight and supervision of the organisation to protect vulnerable people from harm.
  • Organisations need to have clear policies and procedures in place to support complaints and feedback and should ensure complainants feels validated and heard in a timely manner.
  • Organisations should ensure they engage transparently with regulatory bodies to ensure the safety and well-being of their clients and their employees.

How Moores can help

Moores provides a range of safeguarding services for organisations to support them to implement policies, practices and procedures which can mitigate the risk of harm to vulnerable people whilst ensuring that organisations also comply with legislative requirements and regulators. Moores have expertise in harm prevention and mitigation for organisations working with vulnerable people including children, aged care and disability services and works closely with a number of key stakeholders to provide relevant and timely advice to our clients. Moores can provide independent professional investigations to ensure that complaints are properly responded to, and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children and vulnerable people.

Moores’ safeguarding team provides comprehensive support and can assist with training, developing and implementing policies, processes and procedures to promote safety and reduce risk of harm, ensure regulatory and legislative compliance, and respond to concerns through investigations, crisis management and response.

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