Georgi Hadden (left) and James Wheatley, who were injured while in the care of NDIS providers (Image: Supplied)

This article discusses allegations of abuse, violence, neglect and sexual assault of people with disabilities, and suicide.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme’s (NDIS) regulatory body, the Quality and Safeguards Commission — often, the last line of defence for people with disabilities — is so overburdened with complaints and reports, that allegations of abuse, neglect, sexual assault and rape go un-investigated.

The commission is overwhelmed. More than 10,000 cases are submitted every month on average and staff are walking off the job in tears.

The commission has powers to issue sanctions and ban providers who put people with disabilities at risk, but since its inception in 2018 just 22 providers have been banned.

An Inq investigation has revealed:

  • A 52-year-old woman became underweight, malnourished, injured and possibly assaulted while staying in supported living accommodation
  • A young man’s head injury was left unreported and untreated by his carers
  • A non-verbal man was moved out of his group home and left in hospital without his family’s knowledge
  • Each case was reported to the commission and dismissed. No providers were punished
  • The commission received more than 71,000 cases in six months but employed just 187 staff.

Head injuries, assault and neglect ignored

Six months into her 2018 stay at assisted living accommodation with disability service provider Achieve Australia in Sydney’s north, Georgi Hadden, 52, had become malnourished, underweight and suicidal. She had been sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

Hadden said she was found unconscious after a suicide attempt, naked from the waist down with a black eye and bruises all over her face and torso.

Neither the hospital nor Achieve Australia investigated the incident. The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission dropped her complaint when Hadden moved out of the accommodation.

Hadden still doesn’t know what happened that night.

At another service provider, James Wheatley, who is non-verbal, came home from respite care with a large head injury. His support worker told his mother she hadn’t noticed the lesion, and the facility didn’t submit an incident report — as is required under the NDIS code of conduct — to the commission.

A complaint lodged by his mother was dismissed, with no criminal investigation launched into what happened to her son.

For 16 hours, RG’s* family had no idea where he was. RG has Down syndrome, autism, epilepsy and memory loss. He needs an aid to help him communicate. 

His group home sent him to hospital when he became aggressive and then refused to take him back, leaving him homeless. His family had to fly in from interstate last minute.

The commission dismissed the complaint.

When RG was removed from his group home and taken to hospital he had no way of communicating with staff. His family wasn’t told where he was.

Regulator overwhelmed and under-resourced

Former employees at the commission told Inq that staff members had walked off the job in tears. Others said staff had been told to favour companies over people with disabilities when investigating a case.

By June 2019 — the latest figures available — the commission employed 185 ongoing staff. Of those, 113 were in NSW. In the last six months of 2019, the commission received more than 71,000 complaints and reportable incidents.

Federal MP Rebekha Sharkie estimates that fewer than 1% of cases are escalated to the investigations team to be analysed in South Australia, with allegations of rape and sexual assault ignored.

The commission can issue compliance orders, forcing a provider to change their practice, and ban providers from being able to register with the NDIS. These powers are seldom used. 

A commission spokesperson acknowledged it had a high caseload but wouldn’t comment on individual complaints. Some incident reports are multiple notifications of the same issue.

They said if an incident involved allegations of harm to a person with a disability, it was immediately assessed, and criminal allegations were referred to the police. Complaints are closed if the commission believes a provider is meeting their registration and conduct obligations.

They also said some participants choose to change services, rather than lodge a complaint.

As to the question of staffing: “Staffing levels are determined within the allocation available to the agency.”

Last year, the commission recorded an operating surplus of $4.7 million due to savings in employee benefits expenses. It was allocated almost $55 million in the latest budget.

Opposition spokesperson for the NDIS Bill Shorten told Inq that not enough was being done to protect people with disabilities.

“We have grave concerns successive Liberal governments have allowed the disability watchdog to become a toothless purse poodle,” he said.

“Tragic deaths like Ann Marie Smith and constantly-emerging other cases reveal a cultural problem of reluctance to properly monitor or investigate dodgy providers.”

Will an inquiry help? 

A federal inquiry and a joint standing committee inquiry into the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission are both currently underway. 

The federal inquiry is focusing on the circumstances relating to the death of Ann Marie Smith, a South Australian woman who was left soiled and neglected in a cane chair.

The joint standing committee’s inquiry will look at the efficacy and resourcing of the commission. Submissions closed at the end of July. No media releases into the inquiry have been published. Several disability advocates Inq spoke to only became aware of the inquiry through friends on social media. 

There have been questions raised around what another inquiry will achieve. Public sector staff have been anonymously submitting their experiences through their union.

Under-resourced, underfunded and overburdened, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission deals with complaints and reportable incidents slowly and ineffectively, with a reluctance to punish non-compliant providers.

In a way, Hadden, Wheatley and RG were all fortunate: they were able to advocate for themselves or had loving family members to do so on their behalf.

But, despite being the fortunate few who can navigate the complexities of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, their experiences were still dismissed. People with disabilities continue to have allegations of neglect and abuse swept under the rug.

*Surname withheld for privacy

Next: How the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission works

Peter Fray

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