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Yooralla failings: no more excuses

Opinion article by:  Alan Blackwood (first published in: The Age, 25 Nov 2014)

Victorians with disabilities and their families should not have to rely on whistleblowers to keep them safe.

At risk: People with a disability are most likely to be abused in segregated service environments, where abusive practices go unrecognised and unreported and where client and family participation in services is devalued.

Four Corners' and Fairfax Media's expose of the sickening sexual abuse, violence and exploitation of people with disability living in Yooralla's residential services, is the latest in a long line of reports of abuse and neglect experienced by Victorians with disability.

The full expose of Yooralla's failings is shocking enough. But what is equally shocking is that it took the courage of whistleblowers to raise the alarm and, despite multiple cases being proven, senior Yooralla officers have not faced any sanction for the abuse suffered by those in their care.

Yooralla's now former chief executive, Sanjib Roy, resigned voluntarily on Sunday and, in a stunning turn of events, did so with plaudits from the board. The denial of responsibility implicit in the chairman's statement farewelling Roy is difficult to fathom.

Gone: Yooralla chief executive Sanjib Roy resigned after damning revelations of sexual abuse and violence towards those in the agency's care.

I worked at Yooralla in the early 1990s and it is sad indeed to reflect on what has become of a once-leading organisation. It is also distressing to see the prevalence of abuse and neglect of people with disability is a "yet to be resolved" crisis in both government and non-government services across the sector.

World Health Organisation research shows that people with a cognitive impairment are three times more likely to be victims of sexual or physical abuse than other citizens, and children with a disability are nearly four times more likely to be victims of abuse.

Yet, despite evidence such as this being around for many years, we still don't have a vigilant safeguards system in place that offers the protection on which the individuals in Yooralla's care should have been able to rely.

With each case of abuse or neglect in care services reported by The Age, care providers have responded with the excuse of the "bad apple" worker to explain how such terrible abuse occurred.

Time and again, governments and service organisations have reassured us that steps have been taken to prevent future cases of abuse, guaranteeing that once rogue workers have been identified and removed, the problem will go away.

Well, it hasn't and it won't, unless we take strong and decisive action to safeguard individuals with disability.

A legislative framework that can drive a revolutionary shift in the culture of service providers is imperative, as are the sanctions and penalties needed to enforce compliance.

For too long, non-government disability providers have been allowed to self-regulate their way out of trouble by governments that have not intervened swiftly or decisively to force accountability and change when abuse cases surface. Cases such as those detailed in the Four Corners program show that the kind of soft regulation at the core of the disability sector's operation is devastatingly inadequate.

Ten months after Vinod Johnny Kumar was jailed for sexually abusing a number of Yooralla clients in 2013, the Victorian government's belated response was to introduce the Disability Worker Exclusion Scheme to identify people posing "a proven risk" to those living in group homes.

Care workers must be carefully vetted, but by focusing only on workers, the scheme is a piecemeal response that merely plays to the "bad apple" tune and does not fully address the larger issues that have allowed this crisis to fester. The scheme is also limited to disability residential services, meaning other types of services where the risk of abuse is just as real, such as community or aged care and those receiving care at school, are not covered.

People with a disability are most likely to be abused in segregated service environments, where abusive practices go unrecognised and unreported and where client and family participation in services is devalued. Delivering safe, open and accountable services that respond to individuals with capable staff and comprehensive accountability must be the minimum expectation, not only in Victoria, but nationally.

It is unacceptable to rely on weak regulation, the occasional criminal convictions of carers or compensation claims by abuse victims to deliver the change individuals with disability and their families are seeking. Legislated obligations are needed to underpin this change, to both prevent abuse and neglect and to deal strongly with it when instances occur.

We already have a successful system of legislated safeguards and sanctions in our occupational health and safety system (OHS) that locates responsibility for workplace safety with boards and management. Legislated civil and criminal sanctions for breaches of OHS duty of up to $600,000 in fines or five years' jail for individuals for serious breaches have materially changed the behaviour of directors and companies.

The cultural change needed to incorporate the OHS framework in the life of organisations has taken time and hard work. This would never have occurred without legislation to drive the change and establish clear expectations, obligations and sanctions.

It is telling that, like all company directors in Australia, board directors and senior officers of disability organisations have legislated liability for breaches of financial, corporate and OHS regulations, but face no comparable liability or established sanctions for serious breaches in their duty of care to clients. This is what we need to fix.

We should be ashamed that we have had to rely on whistleblowers and investigative journalists to reveal the injustices done to Yooralla's clients and those in state-run homes.  But unless a national system of safeguards is implemented that ensures transparency, accountability and consequence for failure across the board, an imperfect reliance on whistleblowers and the media will be all there is.  

The guarantees of detailed inquiries into Yooralla and the wider disability sector are welcome, but long overdue. Now that the cover has been lifted, there are no more excuses for Yooralla or the state government.

Alan Blackwood has worked in the disability sector for more than 30 years.  He is director of policy and innovation at the Young People In Nursing Homes National Alliance.