Royal Commission into abuse of people with disability is long overdue

By Catia Malaquias

In November 2015 the Community Affairs Reference Committee of the federal Senate published its report on “Violence, Abuse and Neglect against People with Disability in Institutional and Residential Settings”.

Recommendation 1 of the Report was that:

“… a Royal Commission into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability be called, with terms of reference to be determined in consultation with people with disability, their families and supporters, and disability organisations.”

This week, the Federal Government, in rejecting the call for a Royal Commission in light of the development of the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework, chose not to hear the voices of the victims – not to look further into the past or the current systems – not to bring those systems and those that operated within them to account – not to heal – not to learn.

An inkling as to the gravity of that rejection can be extrapolated from the content of the Senate Report itself.  The Executive Summary to the Report (pp. xxvi-xxvii) states:

“The committee finds that violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability is both widespread and takes many forms. This inquiry has not shied away from the fact that the causes, the impacts and the solutions to this issue are complex and there is no easy fix. As one submitter wrote, these issues make people feel uncomfortable and most would prefer to take the easy option and pretend that nothing is wrong. But the reality is far different – the situation for people with disability is unacceptable.

Throughout the inquiry, the evidence presented from people with disability, their families and advocates, showed that a root cause of violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability begins with the de-valuing of people with disability. This de-valuing permeates the attitudes of individual disability workers, service delivery organisations and most disturbingly, government systems designed to protect the rights of individuals.

In fixing the disability service sector, and the legal frameworks that should protect all people regardless of disability status, people with disability must be put at the centre. This entails going beyond considering the rights of people with disability, it means putting people with disability at the centre of decision making not just in their own lives, but also in amending policies and laws.

In the conduct of this inquiry, the voices, lives and choices of people with disability have been paramount. Indeed, the catalyst of the groundswell of public calls for an inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability started with individuals who spoke out about the violence, abuse or neglect they experienced or saw, and started a snowballing of voices that no longer would be silenced.”

In justifying its recommendation for a Royal Commission, the Committee states at para 10.9 (p268)of the report:

“In the case of violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability, the committee notes that the nature of disability (requiring communications or transport support to present evidence) combined with the closed nature of institutions, means that the most vulnerable people and those most likely to have been abused, may not have been able to contact the inquiry. Advocates expressed concern that many potential witnesses were not able to access the support they required to be able to participate in the inquiry. The committee is also highly conscious of the criminal nature of many of the allegations brought before it, through both confidential and public evidence. The committee is therefore of the view that only through a Royal Commission with investigative powers, funded and empowered to visit institutions, could properly conduct an inquiry, and give full weight to the seriousness of this issue.

A federal Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was called and is ongoing. The parallels with the abuse of people with disabilities, in many respects a group that is similarly vulnerable to institutional abuse, are obvious.

A Royal Commission into the abuse of people with disability should be called immediately.

The social and economic inclusion of people with disability, for which Starting With Julius advocates, depends of an inclusive legal and policy framework that facilitates that inclusion with integrity and safety.

Starting With Julius shares the disappointment and supports the call from disability advocates and advocacy organisations for a Royal Commission.

[Cover photo © Samuel Zeller]

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