THE state’s largest specialist childcare facility for autistic children is at the centre of a police and Child Protection Service investigation into allegations of assault involving two young children.
Two female staff at the Huntfield Heights AEIOU Foundation Centre are on extended leave while the investigations are under way.
The police probe is being conducted by the family violence investigation branch in the South Coast CIB, and detectives are working closely with Flinders Medical Centre’s Child Protection Service.
The Education and Early Childhood Services Registration and Standards Board is also monitoring the inquiries after being made aware of the allegations.
Investigations were launched following complaints by the mothers of the two young boys, who noticed severe bruising — including thumb and handprints — on their arms, legs and torsos and radical changes in their behaviour after attending the centre.
The Advertiser has learned that a teacher at the centre also independently reported her concerns about the handling of the two boys to the Care Abuse Report Line and the centre without the knowledge of the two mothers.
The teacher no longer works at the centre.
The mothers, who asked not to be identified, have both told The Advertiser they have never received “adequate explanations” as to how their children suffered the severe bruising, but they suspect they were inflicted during toilet training at the centre.
One of the mothers, who asked to be identified as “Mel”, said after she alerted the foundation’s Queensland head office to her concerns, an occupational therapist was sent to the Huntfield Heights centre for a fortnight to “retrain’’ staff in how to appropriately handle autistic children.
“I told them XXXX is covered in bruises and that I had spoken to another mother whose son also had handprints on his leg,’’ Mel said.
“I offered to send her photographs and she said no, she would send an occupational therapist down to ‘retrain those girls’.
“He was constantly covered in bruises. I knew it was not from normal play.’’
Mel said her son’s behaviour “completely changed’’ following the toilet training sessions and he violently resisted being taken to the centre each day.
“I started questioning myself and what I was doing when his behaviour deteriorated,’’ she said. “Then we started noticing handprints on his thighs and ankles.’’
Mel withdrew her son from the centre in July, several months after first noticing the bruising. She reported it and the investigations were launched.
A letter by Child Protection Service clinical psychologist Kiaran Thorpe details the forensic assessment, including an interview by a trained CPS clinician, conducted on her son in September.
“He was able to acknowledge that ‘naughties’ had happened at the AEIOU centre which had involved him being “hurt” on the arm, leg, chest/torso and to nominate which staff members had been involved,” Ms Thorpe writes.
“Although the information XXXX was able to provide during this interview was limited in the context of his developmental issues, the CPS was of the view that in the context of his level of functioning he appeared to have provided reliable information about his experiences at the AEIOU which was very concerning and suggested he had experienced maltreatment.”
The mother of the second boy said she was shocked to discover the severe bruising to her child, but because of his speech difficulties he had been unable to communicate how they occurred.
The mother, who asked to be identified as Debra, said she had become more upset when, during a visit to her GP with her partner and son, they had been questioned by her doctor about how a handprint bruise on his leg had occurred.
“I could not believe we were being questioned,” she said.
Debra left her son in the centre until August, several months after noticing the bruising, but removed him after learning a teacher there had earlier complained independently to authorities about treatment of the two children.
The centre has acknowledged in documentation given to her that its staff have used “full physical prompt” to get her son to comply with their instructions, after which he cried “for approx 3 hours”.
The AEIOU centre opened in Adelaide just over a year ago. It is understood about 30 children attend, with the National Disability Insurance Scheme providing up to $49,900 in funding for each child.
The centre employs occupational therapists, speech therapists and other specialists.
Lawyers for the AEIOU Foundation provided a statement to The Advertiser denying any allegations of assault involving its staff.
“The AEIOU Foundation and two of its employees are co-operating with SAPOL in relation to what we consider to be unfounded and baseless allegations. The employees have our 100 per cent support,’’ lawyer Jodie Bradbrook said.
“The parents of the children in question allowed their children to be present at the centre for many, many months after the children were allegedly harmed. The allegations are untrue and completely denied.
“The children of our centre are not at risk and will continue to receive our 100 per cent dedicated professional care.”
Lawyer Ben Sale, acting for the two staff members, said they denied any wrongdoing.
“My clients are confident that the outcome of the police investigation will see them exonerated,” he said.
AEIOU’s response to allegations made in the Adelaide Advertiser
Following allegations regarding the health and safety of children in AEIOU Foundation’s Huntfield Heights centre, AEIOU Chairman and Founder James Morton has made the following statement:
“AEIOU Foundation is committed to the provision of exceptional care of the children in our centres at all times.
The Foundation and two of our employees are cooperating with South Australia Police (SAPOL) in relation to what we consider to be unfounded and completely baseless allegations.
We have no evidence to suggest any children from our centre have been harmed by our staff, however we are fully cooperating with police during their investigations.
These employees have our 100% support. They have not been suspended from employment, rather they are on a period of additional paid leave which they requested so that they could assist the police with their enquiries.
We have reviewed detailed logs around both children’s attendance at AEIOU and we are confident that when the authorities complete their investigations our staff will be exonerated.
The parents of the children in question allowed their children to be present at the centre for many, many months after the children were allegedly harmed. Again, these allegations are untrue and completely denied.
The children of our centre are not at risk and will continue to receive our 100% dedicated professional care.
AEIOU Foundation has strict policies and procedures in place to ensure the health, wellbeing and safety of every child in the program.
We participate in regular reviews to ensure the program is delivered with professionalism and in line with all guidelines.
All staff members are qualified and highly-trained, including in the appropriate manual handling of all children in their care.”
Zero tolerance for violence against PWD
Dignity for Disability MLC Kelly Vincent has used International Day of People with Disability (IDoPwD) to again state that it is illegal to use violence against any person.
“Children and young people with disability are especially susceptible to abuse,” says Kelly Vincent.
“News reports about incidents at AEIOU at Huntfield Heights concern matters still under investigation. It is therefore inappropriate for me to make further comment.
“Concerns were raised with me earlier in the year and I promptly took action to draw these matters to the attention of both the SA Minister for Education and the National Disability Insurance Agency.
“All families who place their children in the care of professional staff have a right to expect their children will be safe and well throughout the day.
“Statistically, people with disabilities are at least twice more likely to experience violence than non-disabled people. This fact casts a dark shadow over our nation.
“This is why it has been necessary to strengthen the rights of vulnerable people to give evidence through our justice system in the state’s Disability Justice Plan.
“On International Day of Disability, Dignity for Disability reinforce our zero tolerance stance, and encourage all persons affected to report instances of abuse and for those loving, living, or working with them to support them to do so if needed,” concluded Ms Vincent.