Protecting disabled people in group homes



TRACY BOWDEN, PRESENTER: For 30 years, the institutional model for disabled care has been disappearing across Australia. Instead, more and more people with disabilities have moved into small group homes, living in the community.

For many, the change has led to better outcomes, but others have experienced disturbing incidents of abuse and neglect.

Tonight, for the first time on television, one of the victims of a group home worker speaks out.

Social affairs correspondent Norman Hermant reports.

NORMAN HERMANT, REPORTER: This is a trip back in time for Anita Reidy and her son, Martin.

More than a century after it first opened as a psychiatric hospital, the buildings at Peat Island in New South Wales’ Hawkesbury region now sit empty.

Martin Reidy, who has Asperger’s syndrome, lived here for nearly two decade. He was amongst the last to leave in 2010 when the residential centre for the disabled was finally shut. His mother didn’t want that to happen. Anita Reidy helped lead the fight to try to keep Peat Island open.

ANITA REIDY: I remember the years here with gratitude, great gratitude, because I didn’t get any help before Marty accessed Peat Island centre. No help at all.

NORMAN HERMANT: But today, Anita Reidy is happy with her son’s new life in a group home on the NSW Central Coast. Martin lives largely independently in his own room with his own kitchen.

What’s good about having your own apartment like this?

MARTIN REIDY: Um, where I was before at Peat Island, I had to share with a few other people and I had to have my meals in the same kitchen, but now I’ve got my own kitchen and my own TV and own bedroom.

NORMAN HERMANT: That’s your own independence, really.

MARTIN REIDY: Own independence. Yeah, I can do my own thing. That’s exactly right.

NORMAN HERMANT: Australia began to deinstitutionalise care for the disabled more than three decades ago. Inquiries labelled them grim warehouses, rife with stories of abuse and neglect. The minister overseeing the closure of the last big residential disabled centres in NSW says there’s no turning back.

JOHN AJAKA, NSW MINISTER FOR DISABILITY: It’s clearly the appropriate way. The feedback, as I said earlier, is very positive in relation to group homes. The staff that are retained in the group homes are very experienced staff. And the most important aspect of it is the residents at group homes are able to live a life their way.

NORMAN HERMANT: But there are many families who don’t agree.

Jan Cox’s daughter, Samantha, has a rare chromosomal condition and is intellectually disabled. She has lived in a NSW group home for 13 years.

These pictures were taken after a staff member jumped on Samantha to restrain her in 2012. Police investigated, but did not lay charges. The department responsible for disability services told Samantha’s mother that it was, “… deeply saddened someone so vulnerable could be hurt.”

There was more to come. This September, Samantha Cox was locked in the garage at her group home for nearly two hours. Her mother says, for her daughter, it was a traumatic experience.

JAN COX: She used a bucket or something in the garage to go to the toilet and found some paper to actually wipe herself. I think that’s extremely degrading.

NORMAN HERMANT: The ABC has learned of another series of alleged incidents at this group home in Sydney’s south. The parents of three male residents allege a young man recently placed in the home physically assaulted and attempted to sexually assault other residents. The ABC understands the young man at the centre of the allegations has been removed from the home.

The vulnerability of people with disabilities living in small groups with little supervision has been laid bare this year in Victoria. Vinod Kumar, a worker employed by Yooralla, the state’s largest operator of group homes, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sexually assaulting three residents under his care. For the first time on television, one of his victims, whom we’ll “Sarah”, is speaking out. 40 years old, with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, “Sarah” was repeatedly assaulted.

“SARAH”: Nearly every shift he was suggesting that he and me should have sexual intercourse. I’d say, “No thanks. No thanks. Not interested.” But then when I needed to go toilet or bed or something and I wasn’t in my chair and couldn’t do anything to defend myself, he would take advantage of that fact.

NORMAN HERMANT: How long did the sexual abuse go on for?

“SARAH”: Too long. It shouldn’t have gone on at all. I’d say – can’t remember exactly because I take myself to another place.

NORMAN HERMANT: Do you hope now, after all that you’ve gone through, that there’ll be a change in the way that group homes are administered?

“SARAH”: Most definitely. Otherwise, what am I doing here? Because I really don’t want anyone else to have to go through the whole ordeal of what I went through.

NORMAN HERMANT: Victoria’s Public Advocate, responsible for protecting the rights of the disabled, says this case is more proof there is still much to do.

COLLEEN PEARCE, VICTORIAN PUBLIC ADVOCATE: International research shows that people are going to do much better in small-scale settings where they have access to a home-like environment and are included in the community. But what sits alongside of that, it’s really important that there’s monitoring of those services, and that’s what we see very broadly is missing from the service system.

NORMAN HERMANT: Back on the NSW Central Coast, Anita Reidy is heading home after another successful visit with her son.

ANITA REIDY: This model works well for Marty and I think has developed his understanding and his tolerance of other people.

NORMAN HERMANT: For Martin Reidy, a group home has meant a better life. Advocates say it will take much more training and regulation to make sure his experience is repeated nationwide.

TRACY BOWDEN: Norman Hermant with that report.