(Image: Private Media)

This is part 15 in a series. For the rest of the series, go here.

The Western Australian government is set to hold an inquiry into the operations of the Esther Foundation, a Pentecostal-linked rehab facility, following claims of alleged serious abuse made by a number of former residents and published in a special Crikey investigation.

WA’s Minister for Community Services Simone McGurk has signalled that a parliamentary inquiry will examine complaints and allegations from former residents, staff and volunteers with a report due by the end of the year. 

Esther was awarded large federal government grants on the eve of the 2019 election, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison making a personal visit to the facility where he publicly endorsed its operations while announcing an “investment” of $4 million. Morrison took personal credit for the taxpayer-funded grant, telling staff and residents: “I don’t invest in things that don’t work.”

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As Crikey exposed in a series of investigative reports, the allegations of religious-based abuse stretch back over nearly two decades. The rehab facility was designed for girls and young woman. The foundation claimed it would provide treatment for addiction and mental health issues. However dozens of former residents have alleged they were subjected to exorcisms and all-night prayer meetings to rid them of demons and were denied prescription medications. As well as emotional and physical abuse, some former residents also allege they were sexually abused as minors and that this abuse was kept from authorities. 

Momentum for an inquiry has been building since Minister McGurk made a public invitation for former residents to contact her office with their experiences, following publication of Crikey’s first pieces in mid-February.

The Esther Foundation — which has been under new management since mid 2020 — has since made a public apology for the actions of its founder, Patricia Lavater. (Lavater has now moved on to another faith-based rehab organisation in Perth.) A Facebook page for Esther survivors quickly gained more than 200 followers as former residents came to understand that they were not alone. 

“I feel a wave of relief — relief that our stories are being taken seriously and that they are believed,” said former resident Cara Phillips, who has led efforts to gain justice.

“When you speak out about something like what happened to all of us at the Esther Foundation, it is freeing, you feel support, you feel strong. But you also receive a lot of flak. You receive messages from people who do not believe you. Not only do you go through the trauma in the first place, and spend years trying to recover from it, you then go through the traumatic process of having to defend yourself and the truth of what happened against those who seek to protect the abusers and the institution they represent. Many of the women speaking out have experienced this flak, and have suffered the pain of having their stories challenged by the church and its defenders.

“Since the stories of the survivors of the Esther Foundation first started coming out through Crikey, and now through other media outlets, unfortunately little change has occurred,” she said.

“Patricia Lavater still works with vulnerable people. The Esther Foundation issued an apology calling for us to tell our stories, then promptly deleted any stories shared on their apology post that would paint them in a negative light. 

“Hearing the news of this parliamentary inquiry gives me a sense of relief, and a sense of hope. I am so thankful that the minister has taken our stories and experiences seriously, and I am so thankful for those in the media who have helped us to get the attention that has made this possible. I am daring to hope that maybe as a result of this inquiry, legislation is put in place that will reform the way rehabilitation centres and therapeutic communities are accredited and run. So that people seeking help are not traumatised further, but can find the help they seek, and be free.”

The focus of the state government inquiry is likely to fall on how the alleged abuse went undetected for so many years, while state bodies covering corrective services, juvenile justice and community services placed girls under the care of the foundation. At the same time, founder Patricia Lavater was feted by government and business groups and wooed donors with inspiring stories of girls whose lives were transformed by the Esther program. Crikey has since been told that Lavater carefully curated the words the girls said publicly.

The federal government also has serious questions to answer on its support for the Esther Foundation. Why did then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton sign off on a $630,000 grant to the foundation for a “security upgrade” in the weeks before the 2019 election? Why did the government approve a separate $4 million grant, in a matter of weeks, before the 2019 election? And what advice did the federal Health Department give to minister Greg Hunt who apparently approved the grant in time for Morrison to make an announcement?

The federal Health Department weeks ago told Crikey that it made its risk assessment on the Esther Foundation known to Hunt’s office before the multimillion dollar grant was approved. Last weekend the department provided a statement to Channel Ten’s Sunday Project that it was aware of the allegations raised in the media and that it was working with the Esther Foundation through the Department of Social Services Community Grants Hub “to ensure the objectives of the funding agreement are delivered”.

But what did the Health Department know? And what did it tell the Morrison government?

Crikey is seeking answers to those questions through a freedom of information request. We confidently predict it will go nowhere, so if a public-spirited bureaucrat wanted to get the truth out just drop us an email at dhardaker@protonmail.com.