This article contains references to abuse, violence, neglect and sexual assault of people with disabilities, and suicide.
When Georgi Hadden was accepted into assisted living accommodation for people with disabilities, she thought she would finally be getting the care she needed.
A mother, former police officer and former State Emergency Services volunteer, Hadden had spent most of her life trying to help others until her condition deteriorated.
Her disabilities meant she always struggled in her roles — as a police officer she would carry a notebook in her pocket, stuffed to the brim with day-to-day tips and social cues that most people have committed to memory.
But when Hadden needed care and support, the system failed her.
National Disability Insurance Scheme funding paid the provider, Achieve Australia, more than $11,000 a month to support Hadden — a figure which excluded rent, food and transport.
But for the first six weeks of her 2018 stay in a flat near a shared living area, Hadden was left to sleep on a mattress on the floor. Staff were seldom available to help her cook and eat. In six months she became malnourished and underweight. Concerned emails sent to the centre by her psychologist went unanswered.
Hadden was found by staff early in the morning in August 2018 after a suicide attempt. She said she was found covered in bruises and naked from the waist down.
A complaint submitted to the NDIS’s watchdog, the Quality and Safeguards Commission, was closed when Hadden moved to different accommodation. No one has been held accountable for her alleged neglect.
Hadden’s disabilities are invisible and misunderstood. At Achieve, they were dismissed
Articulate, with a love of words and a penchant for reading the dictionary, Hadden’s disabilities are often overlooked by people who assume because she speaks well, she functions well in other capacities.
As Hadden tells Inq: “I have the whole alphabet of disabilities.”
Along with autism and an acquired brain injury, she’s been diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, panic disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“I don’t have autism — I am autistic. It’s not a label that can be taken off. It’s part of what makes me who I am,” she says.
Her condition has deteriorated over the years.
In February 2018 she moved into an Achieve Australia-run flat in Sydney’s north after a bout of homelessness and time in hospital.
When she arrived at her new home there were no furnishings. The centre arranged for a mattress, and Hadden had to furnish the rest of her flat.
A month into her stay, Hadden’s psychologist and former Macquarie University clinical psychology training director John Franklin — who visited her at home once or twice a week — raised concerns with Achieve. In an email to management in March, he wrote:
When I visited yesterday it was fairly obvious that nothing in her flat was organised or set up properly. Staff have continually advised [Hadden] that Achieve does not have enough funding when she requests help.
Hadden estimated she had between one hour and 90 minutes of staff time a day. Franklin said that should have been between three and six hours.
“On the basis of my observations, she did not receive the quality of care she was entitled to and for which the NDIS was presumably paying,” he tells Inq.
Disability support workers are some of the lowest-paid workers in Australia. About 40% are casuals. About a quarter leave their jobs in a given year. Many new hires have no disability-related qualifications.
Achieve almost doubled its revenue between 2018 and 2019, pulling in $89 million across 10 locations in New South Wales.
Flinders University social work professor Louise Butler told Inq under-servicing by disability service providers was common.
“Unless there is regular independent oversight, it would not be difficult for organisations to provide many hours less of staff support to an NDIS participant than what is specified in their plan,” she says.
Support workers often don’t know what a client’s package stipulates; they don’t know if the hours they’re working match what a client has been allocated.
“Without appropriate oversight by family, friends or independent safeguarding agencies then what happens in the private home or care setting is not monitored because often the people receiving the service do not have the ability to speak out, and if they could there would be no one to listen,” Butler says.
Victorian Advocacy League for Individuals with Disabilities advocacy manager Sarah Forbes told Inq it often received reports of participants not receiving the staffing hours their plans had paid for.
“We’ve seen cases where people have been charged for direct support hours that haven’t been provided,” she said.
Hadden was aware of the problem, but many weren’t. “We have a long way to go in terms of NDIS participants understanding their consumer rights, and how to be demanding of them,” Forbes says.
Malnourished, shut down and shut in: a tragedy in the making
By August Hadden’s condition had deteriorated. “It got so bad, I shut down,” she says, which means “you can’t talk, can’t move but you can hear”.
Already slim, she estimates she lost about 10kg, dropping to a bone-thin 42kg: “I looked like a skeleton.”
An external worker employed by Hadden through a separate pool of funding told Inq they found how staff behaved to Hadden “confronting — they didn’t understand her needs or disability”.
The worker paid for Hadden’s groceries several times: “It made me want to cry a lot of the time.”
Another worker told Inq they were upset by Hadden’s treatment. Both workers left their roles after working with Hadden.
Achieve told Inq it couldn’t comment on individual circumstances: “We take our duty of care to all our clients extremely seriously, and do everything we can to support complex needs and ensure their ongoing health and wellbeing.”
Battered, bruised, and a desperate attempt on her life
On the afternoon of August 2 Franklin visited Hadden and found she had been lying in darkness all day, distressed and confused. She was having suicidal thoughts.
He emailed the centre with his concerns. A week later, he emailed Achieve again after receiving no response:
Despite a long-standing concern about [Hadden] being malnourished and many requests by myself to keep a record of her weight, the unit is still not doing this … This situation borders on neglect and has to change … If changes aren’t made we may well have a tragedy on our hands and consciences.
His warnings fell on deaf ears. Hadden attempted suicide. She said she was told by staff she was found unconscious and not breathing, naked from the waist down, covered in bruises, and her room in disarray.
They called an ambulance, and she was taken to the Royal North Shore Hospital.
An Achieve spokeswoman told Inq that internal reports about that night, and the commission’s report, differed from Hadden’s account, but they couldn’t go into further detail to protect her privacy. She said they worked with any authorities they needed to to protect their clients’ wellbeing.
“Any allegations regarding the safety and wellbeing of our clients, past or present, is of paramount concern to us. This case is no exception. Our focus is the wellbeing of the former client concerned. As an organisation, Achieve Australia is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the abuse and neglect of people with disability,” the spokesperson said.
Of adults with a disability, 47% have experienced violence.
When Franklin visited Hadden in hospital he was alarmed by her injuries. Hadden doesn’t how they occurred — only that she fell unconscious fully clothed and “woke up in pain”, no longer wearing the jeans she had been wearing.
The hospital did not investigate, dismissing her injuries as “abnormal illness behaviour”.
Royal North Shore Hospital did not respond to Inq’s request for comment.
“It was cruel and sad and beyond disgusting and humiliating,” Hadden says.
Hadden submitted a complaint to the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission — established for only two months — outlining her neglect and the experiences she’d seen of other residents. The commission interviewed Hadden and Franklin but didn’t interview support workers who witnessed Hadden’s experience, even though she had provided names and phone numbers.
The commission got in touch only with management at Achieve Australia — and dropped the complaint.
We have decided to take no further action on your complaint for the following reason:
Achieve Australia have offered to contact you in relation to the incident, however you have declined this offer.
You have ceased services with Achieve Australia.
Hadden didn’t want to talk to Achieve after her experience.
The commission’s resolution is the only information she has about its investigation.
Hadden was moved to a new accommodation provider only to experience a similarly low level of support.
No longer a client? No longer an issue
The commission’s explanation — that once Hadden had left Achieve no action was needed — was also used in RG’s* case at a different disability service provider.
RG’s behaviour changed after seeing his flatmate unsuccessfully be resuscitated in a group home in 2017. The incident caused RG — who has the cognitive capacity of a six-year-old, Down syndrome, autism and memory loss — to become aggressive. He needs an aid to help him communicate.
His sister Jennifer* pushed for more training for staff and a specialist to help him. Instead, in January this year, RG was admitted to hospital as staff couldn’t manage his behaviour. His belongings were packed up and his family wasn’t told where he was.
Jennifer only discovered he was in hospital after managing to get through to a support worker on the phone. NDIS staff cannot provide services to hospital patients, so RG was left alone without anyone to help communicate. He also had no personal belongings with him.
It was more than 16 hours before Jennifer was able to find out where he was and fly in from interstate to see him. She submitted a complaint to the commission. Again, no punitive measures were taken by the commission.
After a review of Jennifer’s complaint, the regulator added a note to the provider’s file and dismissed the complaint.
“Given that [RG] is no longer receiving services from [the provider] there is little value in pursuing this option as it is unclear what outcome could be achieved that would address these concerns,” the commission wrote.
While the commission wouldn’t say why it stopped investigating RG and Hadden’s complaints after they left their respective providers’ care, it did say some participants choose to “exercise their right to choice and control and move to another service provider that better suit their needs”.
‘I still live in hell’
Hadden has since moved back to her home state of Tasmania. She is supposed to have around-the-clock care although the pandemic means qualified support workers from the mainland can’t reach her.
“I still live in hell and I still live having panic attacks, flashbacks and failed suicide attempts,” she says.
Hadden has reconnected with her son and is still fighting for her complaints to be listened to, and action taken to help residents still under the care of her accommodation providers.
*Surnames withheld for privacy