Department of Human Services

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The Minister for Human Services established the Safeguarding Task Force on 21 May 2020 with responsibility to examine and report quickly on gaps and areas that need strengthening in safeguarding arrangements for people with disabilities living in the State.

It is clear we have some gaps in our system for our most vulnerable people with disabilities. The case of Ann Marie Smith has just shocked everyone. There have been many failings and we want to correct them.

Minister Michelle Lensink 2020

The suffering and death of Ann Marie Smith has galvanised the community. The sheer horror of what is alleged to have occurred in the last 12 months of her life and the manner of her death is what nightmares are made of.

For people with disabilities, particularly those who are more vulnerable because of physical limitations or communication difficulties, and because of social factors such as isolation from friends, family, and community, there is an overwhelming fear that what happened to Ann Marie could happen to them.

For parents of children with disabilities, it sets fire to a pervading anxiety about “will my beloved son or daughter be looked after properly when I am gone or can’t care for them anymore?”

For service providers, there is sharply heightened awareness that their policies, procedures and training of staff might be inadequate in upholding their clients’ rights — for a fate like Ann Marie’s to occur for any person with a disability supported by their organisation would be catastrophic.

For Government agencies, consideration must be given to what policy settings and systemic failures allowed Ann Marie Smith to suffer the fate she did.

This report uses the terminology people with disabilities to refer to the disability community. We acknowledge and respect that there is a range of views about language and celebrate the right of all people to identify as they see fit.

Presently in South Australia, disability rights are theoretically protected by the Disability Inclusion Act 2018, the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 and, at the Commonwealth level, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986. Internationally, disability rights are laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

Despite the existence of these mechanisms to spell out the rights of people with disabilities, the lived experience of many is something entirely different. While this Task Force did not investigate the specific circumstances surrounding Ann Marie Smith’s treatment and death, it is important to acknowledge them as an example of the terrible consequences of failing to truly enact the rights of people with disabilities on both the individual and societal level.

We are most concerned about contraventions of the UNCRPD that occur in the following areas:

Article 10 – Right to life

Article 19 – Living independently and being included in the community

Article 20 – Personal mobility

Article 22 – Respect for privacy

Article 25 – Health

Many contraventions of the UNCRPD and other policies can exist in the life of a single person. Many of the above mentioned legislative protections for people with disabilities include exemptions for governments and other bodies and are based on individuals bringing action against an offending party rather than being proactive.

People with disabilities remain under educated about, and unsupported to pursue, their rights. The lack of state funding of disability advocacy bodies is part of this problem. So, too, is the inaccessibility of society in general. The access and inclusion barriers that exist in systems, including transport, health and education, can inhibit people with disabilities from speaking up and escaping abuse.

The views of support workers and disability service providers are often seen as more important or credible than those of people with disabilities. A pervasive view about people with disabilities sees them as passive recipients of support services for which they should be grateful. People can be labelled as troublemakers if they make complaints about the services they receive. The nature of disability support work sometimes elicits feelings of pity and reverence from the general population, and can be seen as excusing the abuse that sometimes occurs.

It is not enough for service providers to have a “zero tolerance” philosophy on abuse. They must also refer matters of abuse to the police for criminal action. Additionally, they must honestly acknowledge and address their own failings as a service provider.

Rather than asking why people do not speak out, we must identify and destroy the barriers that stop them from doing so, and identify, punish, and remove as applicable those who perpetrate abuse or otherwise present a risk to the happiness, safety, dignity, autonomy and ultimately the lives of people with disabilities.

Kelly Vincent

This report is not an exercise in apportioning blame — other investigations will uncover what specifically happened to Ann Marie Smith. There is a South Australian Police (SAPOL) investigation, Coroner’s examination, an independent inquiry by Hon. Alan Robertson (a former Federal Court judge) on behalf of the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and a SafeWork SA investigation. The purpose of this Task Force is to quickly identify gaps in services and systemic failures that let this tragic event occur. If those gaps and failures are not rectified, similar tragedies could occur again.

Members of the Task Force want to emphasise that the ways in which a person with a disability connects to others and is able to direct and control what happens in their own life will help to proactively avoid abuse and neglect.

By creating a good life you are preventing abuse.

Prof Sally Robinson

The Interim Report concentrated on:

  • preventative measures, whereby government agencies and service providers have policies, staff training and safeguards in place to minimise the risk of abuse or neglect while, at the same time, not derogating from the freedom and agency of the participant, and
  • corrective measures — how the system responds when things go wrong. How are policies, procedures and training modified to mitigate the risk of reoccurrence of adverse events?

This updated report has more to say on all these matters, as the Task Force considered evidence and options and listened to the views expressed by many individuals and groups who wished to have input.

This Report of the Safeguarding Task Force also deals with developmental measures — how people with disabilities are empowered through education, experience and opportunity so that they can have a life of their own choosing, a life they control, a life of which they are the author — and how government policy can foster that development.

Is it possible to design a framework whose primary aim is to promote people’s wellbeing and safety and maximise their opportunity to have a good life? Is it possible to capture the learning to date from people, families and workers and give some indication of what helps to keep all citizens safe, including a mixture of local informal supports such as family, friends, neighbours, community connections and formal statutory supports such as regulation, police checks and registers? What other processes are in place in today’s society that promote wellbeing, balancing informal and formal supports? Is it possible to develop a framework that benefits all citizens not just those identified as vulnerable? What should be the potential national role of mechanisms that exist in some jurisdictions but not others e.g. care concerns units and community visitor programs under an NDIS?

Walker, Fulton and Bonyhady 2013

Page last updated : 10 May 2022

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