Victoria's disability minister said he was horrified by revelations of a "desensitising box" at a Melbourne autism centre and has expanded a probe into one of the country's leading disability service providers.
Minister Martin Foley on Monday instructed the Department of Human Services to urgently inquire about the box as part of an examination of Aspect's Heatherton site, vowing to get to the bottom of the matter.
"I will not hesitate to take the strongest action against anyone who has been involved in abusive behaviour in our disability care system," he said. "It will not be tolerated."
The two-metre-tall "desensitising box" in the classroom.
On Monday, Fairfax Media revealed Aspect is being investigated by Victoria's Disability Services Commissioner, while a separate DHS inquiry is examining "quality of support" at the site.
Families of people with autism said they were sickened by news that the large wooden box, described by an insider as "coffin like", was installed in a classroom at the Aspect centre and designed to contain clients.
The Autistic Family Collective called for a review of Aspect's public funding, saying the community was appalled after learning clients had painted the two-metre box and were collecting egg cartons to be used for soundproofing.
"I feel sick visualising children painting the outside of a soundproof, dark, coffin-like box ... it's frightening," group convener Briannon Stevens said.
Aspect received $4.8 million in state government funding this year, including $1.7 million for behaviour intervention and respite services, and $3.1 million through individual support packages.
A DHS spokeswoman said Aspect's funding could be terminated if adverse findings were made in either investigation.
"Irrespective of these reviews, the department can help people on individual support packages to find new providers if they wish to change," she said.
Aspect said its own investigation found no evidence the box had been used. It said when the box was brought to the attention of its Sydney head office in April, it had just acquired the site from another provider, Alpha Autism, and was still training staff.
The box was erected last year. Aspect had been in control of Heatherton since December 1. The company never reported it to authorities after head office ordered its removal. It gave two staff members who built it – both former Alpha workers – the opportunity to resign.
Disability advocate Julie Phillips has called for more heads to roll at Aspect, saying every staff member who knew about the box but did nothing was complicit in the scandal.
Ms Phillips also condemned what she said was the "victimisation" of whistleblower Karen Burgess, who was fired soon after raising alarm about the box.
"This organisation is unfit to provide services to people with disabilities," she said.
Aspect chief executive Adrian Ford reiterated on Monday that the box was unauthorised and against company policy.
"The whole concept is repugnant," he said. "This position has been reinforced repeatedly in practice within our services, the training of staff, and publicly."
Mr Ford said people with autism sometimes experienced challenges with sensory overload and may choose to remove themselves to a quiet place.
But the box at Heatherton was "in no way, shape or form suitable for its purpose", he said.
Advocates said efforts to calm a person with autism should never be restrictive or forceful, and should be done with the support of family and therapists.
They said clients should be given supervised access to a safe place to retreat, such as a quiet room or an area outside.
Ms Stevens, of the 150-family Autistic Family Collective, which wants to close segregated autism facilities, said a client's autonomy should not be taken away.
"There's a difference between a cardboard box that a child can jump in and out of and a dark, terrifying box that is locked," said Ms Stevens, a social worker and mother of three young autistic children.
The peak body for Victorians with autism and their carers, Amaze, said there was "no place" for the use of restraint and seclusion.
Chief executive Fiona Sharkie said state-based laws governing these practices varied among sectors, including education, disability services and healthcare.
"Despite numerous laws and frameworks designed to protect the rights and freedoms of people with disability, more needs to be done," she said.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme, which is being rolled out for more than 460,000 people with disability, will set out a uniform quality and safeguarding framework.