July 2, 2012
LAST Tuesday I received a phone call from a former Yooralla regional manager. She said police were going to the home of my 31-year-old son, who is severely disabled, to interview him and the other five residents of the house, which is run by Yooralla.
Stunned, I asked her what was going on. She replied that a Yooralla casual carer was in police custody charged with alleged abuse. I asked her when the police were going to my son's house. She said they were already there.
I live in Ballarat, so it was impossible for me to go to my son's home in Melbourne to support him during this ordeal. My son, who is intellectually disabled, is largely non-verbal. No one knows how to communicate with him better than I do.
It was not until Wednesday morning that I learnt of the terrible details of the alleged abuse - not from Yooralla, but from police. I learnt that the alleged offender had been charged with rape in March; had appeared in court in June; and has been remanded to face another court hearing in August. I learnt that the man had worked at least 40 shifts at my son's home.
Sickened, I tried to digest what is every parent's worst nightmare.
For years I and another parent, Linda Wilson, have lobbied Yooralla over what we view as the overuse of casual staff at our sons' home. We believe the organisation's constant use of casual staff compromises our sons' safety, wellbeing and quality of life. We have pleaded with Yooralla to employ suitably qualified, full-time, permanent staff.
In June 2009, we raised our concerns in a letter to Yooralla board members and chief executive Sanjib Roy.
''In our opinion the standards of care at [our sons'] home has deteriorated … to such a point that Yooralla administrators should hang their heads in shame,'' we wrote. ''Our sons and their housemates have been forced to cope with a seemingly unrelenting parade of casual staff due to Yooralla's apparent inability to employ and retain permanent staff.''
Roy and Yooralla general manager Jennifer Boulton hurried to Ballarat to meet Linda and me to discuss our concerns. We were promised that positions for permanent staff would be filled as soon as possible, and that we would be invited to take part in interviews. These promises have proven to be hollow.
In 2009 a full-time house manager was employed at my son's home. My concerns intensified in January this year, when Yooralla implemented a major management restructure, without consulting clients or their families.
In this restructure, Yooralla apparently shed about two-thirds of its house managers. One ''service manager'' now works across several houses - meaning residents and staff are often left largely unsupervised.
''We are developing a range of service strategies to make sure our services are more and more relevant to what people with disability and families want,'' Yooralla announced to families in a ''Lifestyle Support and Choice Management restructure'' document in January. The problem is we did not want the restructure. But we were not asked.
For the past four months I have continued to raise my concerns with Yooralla, to no avail. ''My son now lives in a house where vulnerable clients and staff are unsupervised by an on-site team leader/house manager, and this I believe compromises his safety,'' I wrote in May.
All the while, Yooralla knew that the alleged offender had been charged with rape in March.
In an article last Friday, June 29, by Age investigative journalists Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, Jennifer Boulton said families of clients who may have been exposed to the accused man's offending were not informed of the charges by Yooralla because: ''Our main focus was on working with those who had made allegations.'' This extraordinary statement was made while police were continuing to conduct interviews with Yooralla clients, including my son.
In Yooralla's 2011 annual report, Roy wrote: ''I am pleased and confident to say that Yooralla continues to provide good quality support for people with disability.'' Given my long-term concerns about the standards of care provided to my son, I disagree.
I do agree with Victoria's Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce, who told The Age that ''agencies need to develop strategies to not just deal quickly when they suspect abuse, but to prevent abuse occurring in the first place.''
To facilitate this, I propose a full and urgent public inquiry into Yooralla's practices.
Bureaucrats, often making decisions affecting the lives of thousands of people with disabilities, come and go. Yet those who presume to make decisions regarding our sons and daughters forget one important point: we love them, they don't.
Sandy Guy is a freelance journalist.