I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Disability Amendment Bill 2017.
It is a bill that seeks to strengthen the protections for people with disability.
It is a piece of legislation that is an important addition to the arsenal of legislation designed to safeguard the most vulnerable citizens from abuse and neglect, but I think it can only be seen as a step along the way.
There is still much more to be done.
It aims to amend the current act to ensure such exploitation is neither tolerated nor normalised and that services are provided within a cultural framework of upholding the rights, dignity and wellbeing of those who are living with a disability.
I had the absolute privilege of sitting on the inquiry into abuse in disability services as a member of the Family and Community Development Committee. It was a truly amazing experience to come to that and to hear such a broad range of evidence. The purpose of the bill is, first of all, to enable the disability services commissioner to look into complaints about the provision of certain services to persons with disability, to look at abuse and neglect in the provision of certain services and to also broaden the powers of the disability commissioner.
This is something that actually came up quite a bit in the evidence that was taken. There was a real frustration with the processes around the disability commissioner’s powers. There was a sense that there was much too much mediation, much too much arbitration and not enough outcomes or findings or actions perceived by so many of the families who had taken their complaints to the commissioner. There was also a perception by the commissioner that he did not have the power of his own accord to investigate complaints, and if there was any doubt about it, this bill now certainly clarifies that. I think that will be very welcome.
One of the first things that we were asked to do at the commencement of this inquiry was to watch the Four Corners program of 24 November 2014, and that was a program that highlighted the abuse of people with a disability in the Yooralla institution at Benalla. It was a truly dreadful, dreadful saga to consider what had happened to certain people in that institution, but worse than that was the absolute failure of the institutions to address in a proper manner what had occurred. Across the whole time that we heard evidence, some from really distressed people, their greatest frustration was the lack of ability of the institution which their child was in to address issues in a really appropriate way.
The committee heard a lot of evidence in Melbourne and of course from many of the experts in Melbourne, where they are located, but we also travelled to regional areas, including Bendigo, Shepparton, Benalla and Mildura. The member for Mildura spoke of many of the places there that provide services for people with disability, and we visited those. It is really heartening in a regional community sometimes to see the way the community embrace people with disability, particularly in relation to workplaces. The Mildura Chocolate Company was a really lovely example of that.
In Shepparton we have Shepparton Access, and we have ConnectGV. These are organisations that work very hard to engage older people when they have left school, and often there is a real gap after education concludes to move into the workforce and undertake useful work.
Some of the evidence will never leave me. For example, there was the mother who came into a room at 55 St Andrews Place and the first thing she did was to put a photo of her child on the desk — a seven-year-old, say, somewhere around that age. She just said, ‘I want you to see that this is a real person, that this is my child. This is the child I love and now I am going to tell you what happened to her’.
That is just etched in my memory: the mother’s grief and pain as she then explained what had happened to her child and demanded of us that some action be taken to deal with the absolutely unbelievable way in which the complaints in relation to her child had been dealt with, the lack of recognition of that child’s needs and the lack of accountability by those who had affected her.
A mother from Shepparton talked about the long-term abuse of her son — her son has no speech — and the vulnerability of that young man, firstly, as a child of about nine years old. That was when she first became aware of his abuse. There were several other times over the course of his life when he was again abused. We saw the grief of that mother, knowing that she had handed over her child to an institution in the belief that he would be cared for, respected and just be dealt with in a fair and reasonable way.
We heard from an elderly mother in Bendigo. The greatest fear of older parents was what would happen to their child once they were gone because, inevitably, so many of these people with disability will live much longer than their parents. There was the great fear and anxiety of handing over responsibility for your child to a state institution or a not-for-profit institution and not having the confidence anymore, as a result of so much of the evidence that was coming out, that they would be safely cared for. It is just a terrible thing to think that you might leave behind a child when you die who will not be looked after. That lack of confidence in the system was a real issue that we perceived along the way and certainly influenced the recommendations we ultimately made.
There were many very passionate people and there is no doubt the parents of children with disability can very often be very strong advocates for the children. We saw many of those. Some were very, very angry, and with good reason. The vulnerability of people with disability is obviously different for many different people. There is such a big range of disability, from the young man who was speechless to others who are much less vulnerable and able to articulate their own needs.
Following on from the articulation that access to the disability services commissioner was often frustrating and not giving the results that were needed, it is really pleasing to see that these powers are now being extended: that the commissioner is now able to go into institutions and inspect them, that he is able to take evidence from people with a disability, that he is able to enter their rooms with their consent and look for evidence if he needs to, and of course that he is able to initiate an inquiry of his own. I think the report of Bernard Geary in 2015 about young people living in out-of-home care was an excellent example of a commissioner going in and doing what really needed to be done and coming up with results that were shocking to all of us and also need a lot of addressing.
One of the big issues that came up in the inquiry was that of gender, and the fact that so much of the sexual abuse of those with a disability was perpetrated by males. The committee recommended that the Disability Act 2006 be amended to provide that the gender preference of people with disability be recorded. In other words, that their preference of the gender of the person who is going to provide them with intimate care be recorded and that they have some say in who is looking after them. I think this is a really important amendment. It is not in this bill, as I understand it, but it is something that I hope will come in the future. It is very important.
Recommendation 5.1 of the final report was that the Victorian government should expand current programs and initiatives for the prevention of violence against women and make all of these services much more accessible to them. The data is really strong that it is often women with a disability in services who are so often the victims.
The rolling out of the national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) will see many more organisations come into the space. It will often see individuals coming into the space to provide care. Never before has the need for protection for people with a disability been greater because I think we will see an expansion of service providers, and it is very important that on a national basis the NDIS also sets up a framework for the protection of people with a disability. There has been a call for a royal commission in our recommendations, and I hope to see that happen. I support the bill.