A FAMILY'S repeated requests for their daughter, a woman living with disability in a Life Without Barriers' group home, to not be left with male carers were ignored, despite allegations a support worker had sexually assaulted her, her mother says.
That and other requests and complaints made about the quality and consistency of her care were largely ignored over a period of ten years, the woman's mother said yesterday.
'Jennifer' gave evidence on Wednesday, the second day of the twentieth hearing of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation of People with Disability, which is examining two case studies involving group homes managed by Life Without Barriers on the NSW north coast and in Victoria.
The complaints Jennifer made included that her daughter's diet and health were not managed properly leading to her being hospitalised. Her finances were poorly managed, with numerous staff members having access to the safe where it was kept on the premises, she was often put to bed at 7pm despite her wishes, and family members were made to feel uncomfortable about coming to visit her.
'Natalie', who lives with cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and hearing aids, and has a moderate intellectual disability, is 'quite intelligent' when it comes to social interactions and is a 'very emotional person', her mother said.
"Natalie was integrated into normal school from kindergarten and finished high school," she said in a statement read out to the commission.
She lived at home until she was 21 and moved into a Life Without Barriers' group home in early 2012. Two or three months after the move she was taken to hospital with a bowel blockage, but her mother was not informed. Natalie continued to have issues with her diet, was often given take away food, and her exercise regime was not followed, Jennifer said.
In another more recent incident, in March 2020, Natalie was taken to emergency and subsequently diagnosed with chronic distension requiring surgery. Her mother was told she'd been close to having a ruptured bowel and sepsis.
"Natalie nearly died because of this incident," Jennifer said.
Despite that, the service continued to fail to provide requested health charts, Natalie was often given meals that did not comply with what her treating nutritionist had recommended, and her prescribed exercise plan wasn't followed, resulting in ongoing health complaints, her mother said.
In August, 2015, Jennifer received a voicemail message from a Life Without Barriers operations manager telling her that she wanted to meet to discuss an alleged indecent and sexual assault of Natalie.
"This was the first I had heard about Natalie being the victim of alleged indecent and sexual assaults and it was a very distressing way to learn the news," she said.
She was told that a male disability support worker who had been performing Natalie's personal care had been charged with aggravated indecent assault of a person with physical disability and the offence of having sexual intercourse with a person with a cognitive impairment.
Jennifer said she had raised concerns about that particular support worker "getting really close" to Natalie, and that he paid her "an unusual amount of attention'' about four or five times, but that her concerns were dismissed.
"I had also observed changes in Natalie's behaviour during 2014 and 2015," she said." I could tell there was something wrong with Natalie because she became angry ... it was not like Natalie to be angry."
Subsequent meetings with staff about Natalie's personal care, the family's preference that this be provided by a female and that she not be left overnight with a male support worker, did not lead to those changes, Jennifer said.
When Natalie and her house mates were moved to a new house, there was very little communication with families who were told they "did not want parents interfering''.
The first time she visited her daughter at the new house, who had been distressed about the move and had been in tears, Jennifer said she felt so unwelcome she left soon afterwards.
When Natalie asked for access to her own money, she said the staff would not give it to her, and her mother continued to pay for many of her lunches out, new clothes and pharmacy bills.
Natalie moved out of the home in October 2020 and into supported independent living with a different service provider and has since been saving money.
"Last year at Christmas she had saved enough money to buy her family Christmas presents," Jennifer said.
"For years she had to ask me for money to buy people presents, but now she can buy them herself with her own money that she's saved.
"Natalie seemed like she was scared of the Life Without Barriers disability support workers and was scared to speak up, however at her new home she "chatters all the time and appears very happy and comfortable with her workers", Jennifer said.
In answer to questions put to her, Acting Commissioner, NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, Samantha Taylor, agreed that the scheme has been overwhelmed with complaints.
"The commission was overwhelmed with complaints and therefore found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to deal with them in a timely fashion,?" she was asked, to which she answered: "That's one of the reasons that we introduced a prioritisation system."
Chair of the Commission, Ronald Sackville QC, said he was not suggesting necessarily that the Commission could have done better, but it may well have been a question of resources.
"It does tell us, I think, that there is a problem if complaints, genuine complaints, are not addressed in a very timely fashion ... become stale after a period of time and people obviously get frustrated."
There were delays of months at time in relation to the complaints families made about Life Without Barriers' group homes to the Qualify and Safeguards Commission and a response, the commission heard.
However, complaints were now being responded to "in a much more timely way", Ms Taylor said.
Life without Barriers started out in Newcastle in 1995, but it now provides services throughout Australia and had a revenue last financial year in excess of $755 million.
According to its 2008 annual report, the organisation "pursued the philosophy that positive, healthy relationships" were essential for people in care to feel safe and have an opportunity to improve their lives.
Their focus was on "integrating people back into the community, helping them form relationships".
The CEO of Life Without Barriers, Claire Robbs, is expected to give evidence on December 14 and 15. Lawyers representing the organisation did not ask questions on Wednesday.
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