Thursday, 18 June 2020
NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission
South Australians were, justifiably, horrified when they heard of Anne Marie Smith's cruel, tragic and unnecessary death in the cane chair which had become her bed and her toilet. Anne Marie was failed by her carer and her NDIS provider—Integrity Care—and she was failed by the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission. Whistleblowers have contacted me to share what appears to be a 'hear no evil, see no evil' management culture at the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission in South Australia, the commission which was set up to ensure that people like Anne Marie are protected. The following stories have been shared with me.
Firstly, a participant reported an alleged sexual assault by a new care worker. The participant had not complained before. The matter was never referred to the investigations team. It was archived and only came to light after the investigator reviewed the file in connection with a separate matter some months later. Secondly, a participant died from the misuse of a strong sedative during what was a routine examination, but the matter was not pursued by the commission as the state director was satisfied that the SAPOL investigation was enough. How could it be that a participant has died as a consequence of the misuse of chemical restraints in the care of an NDIS provider and the commission chose not to investigate? Thirdly, one outright sexual assault, where the participant was photographed, was not referred through to investigations and was dug up several months later by chance. And another notification that languished on the list was an alleged rape of an intellectually disabled participant by one or more care workers. The incident was not referred to the investigations team because the frontline reportable incident officer didn't think the incident was serious enough to warrant immediate action. It was four months before the allegation got to the investigations team—four months!
I'm told that the delay in passing the cases to the investigations team is a common occurrence, and that less than one per cent of reportable incidents make it to investigations. There is just a handful of workers employed to triage reportable incidents. They are deluged with notifications, each having at least 600 open cases on any given day. The commission is a passive receiver of information and complaints, with no risk assessment processes to identify high-risk providers or at-risk participants. Visits to providers are superficial 'meet and greets' by prior arrangement because the state director has decreed there shall be no unannounced visits. Staff are not provided with government vehicles and must use taxis or walk to collect evidence or to make a visit. Heaven help participants in the regions! Triaging delays mean it's often too late to interview a witness or to bring any potential prosecution, given the inability of witnesses to recall details after the passage of several months. Staff are leaving and not being replaced in a timely manner, and there are concerns about aspects of the investigative procedures. The commission may not even meet the Australian Government Investigation Standards.
Staff and former staff hold genuine concerns about the manner in which the commission is carrying out its duties, and the concerns, when raised internally, are falling on deaf ears. I understand that the state director actually expressed relief that the commission had no idea that Integrity Care posed a risk to participants—he was relieved that the office had no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Ms Smith's care. Clearly, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a regulatory body. The fact that Integrity Care wasn't on the commission's radar should have filled the state director with dread, not relief.
This cannot continue. The NDIA must undertake a risk assessment during planning phases and must flag at-risk participants and their providers with the commission. State and federal governments must improve information sharing, because the current bilateral agreement between South Australia and the federal government is clearly not working. Frontline staff must be trained and KPIs must be put in place for the immediate sharing of allegations of serious misconduct with investigators. The commission must investigate every allegation of serious misconduct. SAPOL involvement is no excuse not to investigate. Unannounced visits must happen across all of SA. All records must be immediately available for auditing and there must be a thorough independent investigation into the management of the commission in South Australia.
I am shocked at what I've heard. I'd like to thank the whistleblowers for their courage. Now the federal government must act.