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Monday, 15 February 2021
Page: 472


Senator SCARR (Queensland) (11:02): Can I first say how much I admire, and have admired since coming to this place more than 18 months ago, Senator Steele-John's passion with respect to this subject and his advocacy of this matter. I commend Senator Siewert as well, because I know she's had an integral part in maintaining the pressure, which absolutely had to be maintained, to establish the royal commission. I just want to place that on the record. We saw that passion on display once again today. I think it's fair to say that there'd be many Australians suffering under a disability today who look at you, Senator Steele-John, with great admiration.

The government agrees that there is a problem that needs to be fixed and needs to be fixed quickly, because it is absolutely essential that disabled people have an opportunity to tell their stories and that confidentiality should be maintained where it needs to be maintained. There is absolutely no question about that whatsoever. I commend Senator Steele-John for introducing this private member's bill.

The government did announce on 20 October last year—after, as I understand it, the private member's bill was introduced—that it was in the process of drafting legislation to address this very problem. It is hoped that that legislation is introduced in the autumn sittings of this parliament. As Senator Steele-John has said, it is really time critical that this legislation is introduced, because when this royal commission concludes its deliberations we must ensure that, where the confidentiality of those people who have made submissions to the royal commission is absolutely crucial, it is maintained on and from the date of the end of the royal commission. It's also important that the step be taken as soon as possible. The reason for that—and Senator Steele-John touched on this in his contribution—is that we need to send a message to everyone in the Australian community that the Australian government is aware of this issue; that all members of this Senate, including Senator Steele-John, are aware of this issue; that this issue needs to be addressed; and that this issue will be addressed. I'm happy to stand behind that statement I've just made on the record—it will be addressed before the royal commission comes to an end. So, if you have a story to tell the royal commission, please tell your story.

In preparation for this debate I read the interim report from the royal commission, which was released towards the end of last year. I want to read a quote from the front of the interim report which stands out, because I think it really sums up this debate and goes to the crux of why it is so important. The quote that introduces the interim report is, 'What is happening to people is not okay and the stories need to be told.' I commend the chair of the royal commission and the six commissioners for the work they've done, and I note that one of the commissioners, the Hon. Roslyn Atkinson AO, served with distinction in the Supreme Court of Queensland. I congratulate the Hon. Ronald Sackville and all of the other six commissioners: the Hon. Ros Atkinson, of my home state; Ms Barbara Bennett; Dr Rhonda Galbally; Ms Andrea Mason; Mr Alastair McEwin; and the Hon. John Ryan for the work which they've done. It is quite incredible that they've so far received 1,928 submissions, had 7,608 telephone conversations, issued 12 issue reports and received 468 responses—an outstanding response.

I want to take some time—and it's not happy reading—to read some of the case studies which have been drawn out in the interim report of the royal commission. I think in doing this we emphasise the need and the requirement for there to be confidentiality, because when I go through these case studies you'll see, Madam Acting Deputy President Fierravanti-Wells, the vulnerability of the people of which I will talk about in terms of reprisals and being disadvantaged or discriminated against because they told their story. In all of these cases there's a footnote:

Names changed and some details removed to protect people's identities. Narrative based on a submission to the Royal Commission.

So it's quite clear on the face of these submissions that there is a need for confidentiality to be maintained.

The first case study, which is from the victim's perspective and by a lady who's given the name 'Jane', reads that Jane:

… began having seizures as a baby, resulting in development delays and challenging behaviours. Maree—

her mother—

told us in her submission that Jane's autism wasn't properly diagnosed until her early teens.

By the time Jane was in her late teens, Maree was worn out because of lack of support. So she and her husband made the decision for Jane to live in a care home supported by a large agency. She describes it as a traumatic option but the only one possible at the time.

Maree told us that Jane was excited at the idea of living independently. But although Jane was very happy with the night and weekend staff, she had many issues with the day staff.

I can try to put myself in the position of the parents of this daughter, Jane, and the angst that they went through when trying to work out what was best for Jane. They came to a decision that Jane needed to be given the opportunity to go into a care home supported by a large agency. They made that decision in good faith. But what they found was this: Jane's behaviour management plan was never followed. Jane was subject to humiliation, intimidation and bullying.

Maree complained to the day service staff and eventually to the general manager. Her emails went unanswered and she felt that staff avoided her.

Again, can one imagine the emotional turmoil that Maree, the mother, is going through at the treatment of her daughter Jane, and what Jane is going through?

In her submission Maree describes ringing one night to speak with Jane. The staff member who answered asked if the agency had been in touch regarding the 'critical incident'. Maree hadn't heard about it. Then Jane told her she had been sexually abused by a staff member. Maree told us that when she called the agency the next morning they asked, 'Oh you think that happened? Do you want us to get the police involved?' Maree was adamant that she did. Two weeks later Jane was interviewed by the police.

Maree told us that in the 20 months it took for the case to go to trial, Jane was in a constant state of anxiety and the agency offered her no support. Jane developed a fear of new people supporting her. When new support people were introduced, she was scared of them and told Maree they were hurting her. Jane's behaviour escalated and police were called.

Maree recounts in her submission that the staff member was found guilty and sentenced to prison. The prosecutor was surprised because it is 'quite rare for a person with a disability to win a case of abuse', as they are not considered reliable witnesses. However, the conviction was overturned on appeal. Maree told us she felt that a factor in this outcome was that Jane had to engage with a series of prosecutors who lacked understanding of autistic people, while the defendant had one lawyer for the entire process.

Maree says that Jane was left angry, fearful, anxious and distrusting, and behaved accordingly. She says the service provider suggested Jane would benefit from a stay in their lockdown facility to 'help people with challenging behaviours'. Maree wanted to see the facility and a behaviour management plan, but says this never happened. Instead, she says, they placed Jane there one weekend when they were short-staffed and suggested Jane have no contact with Maree or her favourite people.

Again, can you imagine the emotional burden and toll this is taking on Maree, the mother of Jane, let alone what Jane was going through?

Maree states that when, after 10 days, she was allowed to see Jane, she was appalled at the conditions - there was nothing to do and Jane had been denied her personal possessions. Maree believes 'this place, and how she was treated, has become a trigger to the fears and nightmares' Jane still experiences.

Maree and her husband brought Jane home. Maree told us Jane was severely damaged by the experience and blamed Maree for sending her there. She said Jane was fearful of home support staff and reacted aggressively.

Maree's submission describes Jane having post-traumatic anxiety attacks. During these attacks, which are like seizures and can last for hours, she requires incontinence pads, rails on the bed, a helmet and a wheelchair. 'This is a young woman who is normally very physically able and is continent,' says Maree.

Jane is living out of home again and things seem better, but what happened to her 'continues to have an impact on her daily life … on our family and her carers. Maree told us she would like to see more comprehensive training for people working in the disability system and the legal system …

That's the story of Jane and Maree and what they went through as a family.

Then there's the perspective of an employee. Employees are in particularly perilous positions if they turn whistleblower and disclose what is happening in a facility which they believe is untoward, unethical or inappropriate. They can be the subject of persecution in terms of their employment, but it can also affect their future opportunity to obtain employment, because future employers might say, 'Well, if they blew the whistle on that employer, maybe they might blow the whistle on me.' Lena is an employee. This is her story:

When Lena arrived for her first shift as a disability support worker in a day centre, she expected it to be as advertised. 'On paper the roster of programs looked fantastic,' she told us. Participants, some with high needs, could choose different activities … 'They should have been enjoying their life, but they weren't.' Instead she was confronted with 32 people, some restrained, some wearing face guard masks and some lying on the floor. There were only two staff and Lena was told to 'get on with it the best you can'.

It goes on. That's Lena's story—an employee. Her confidentiality needs to be protected.

Then we have the story of Toby and Gavin and, again, their names have been changed and some details removed:

Toby's dad, Gavin, made a submission in which he described Toby's experiences in employment. Toby, who has moderate intellectual disability, knows kitchens. He had been working in different kitchens for businesses large and small for 15 years when he started a job in a hotel early last decade. Toby wasn't too bothered by the initial pranks … until what Gavin calls the 'bad stuff' started.

What began as 'jokes' soon became unwelcome, prolonged, repetitive, intimidating and harassing. The attacks were mostly perpetrated by a particular chef, Chad, who was often left in charge. Gavin described just a few of these incidents.

One was where Chad and his mate locked Toby in the freezer, leaving him cold and scared and screaming …

Another time they sprayed Toby's shaved head with oil and then set his head and T-shirt alight.

Chad told Toby he had to pay him $10 for every day he was kept in the job. Sometimes Toby paid, Gavin said, and, when he didn't, Chad would remind him he was keeping a total of how much Toby owed.

Sometimes Chad and his mate would stand behind Toby, grabbing his buttocks and pushing their groin into his backside shouting obscenities.

One time Chad and his mate took a large kitchen knife, made Toby close his eyes and dragged the blunt side along his arm. Next time, they promised, they would 'do it for real'.

That's the story of Toby and Gavin. I think their confidentiality needs to be protected.

Now we have the story of Dev and Jana:

Jana's son, Dev, has Williams syndrome, is autistic and has a mild intellectual disability. She told us that, in 2014, Dev was admitted to a children's hospital, where he was neglected by staff.

Dev and Jana recount how the hospital and, in particular, certain doctors, failed to do what they needed to do in order to give Dev the attention he needed. Again, I think it is important that their confidentiality is protected, so that they can have access to the medical support which they need without anyone referring to the testimony which they have given to the royal commission.

These stories go on and on and on and they are an absolute searing indictment not just of the individuals involved but of a system which has not been delivering what it ought be delivering to people with a disability in our country, living here in an advanced economy, a civilised nation. They certainly deserve better and, when their stories are told, they have every right to expect confidentiality, and I look forward to the government's legislation to give them exactly that.