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After 12 months, NDIS commission still hasn’t answered family’s questions about son’s bruises

In October 2018, the family of a severely disabled man became so concerned about bruises he was suffering while living in full-time care that they asked for them to be investigated.

Key points:

  • The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission is yet to return a finding regarding injuries suffered by a full-time care client in NSW
  • Sam Donaldson’s mother has been waiting a year to find out what happened to her non-verbal son and has requested a new care provider
  • Disability advocates say they are “disturbed” by a “lack of accountability” in tracking the investigation, and that lengthy delays are common

Almost a year later, the Donaldsons are still waiting for a finding into what happened to Sam Donaldson, who is 33, non-verbal, and, due to his mental disability and severe autism, functions more like a three-year-old.

The first bruise appeared in November 2017, but according to Sam’s mother, Cheryl, they became more regular in June 2018 and continued until December that year.

“I could say almost every weekend there was something on him in the line of a bruise,” Mrs Donaldson said.

The care provider told the family the bruises were the results of falls, and Mrs Donaldson decided to lodge a complaint with the National Disability Insurance Scheme Quality and Safeguards Commission.

Mrs Donaldson said she is “horrified” that the commission has still not resolved the complaint.

Concerns about care

The Donaldsons put Sam on the waiting list for full-time care when he was 14, but it was not until he was 22 that a suitable home for him was found.

The family had uprooted their lives to move from the New England region to the NSW Mid North Coast to get Sam the care he needed.

Due to Sam’s condition, the move into care was difficult.

“He doesn’t cope with change very well, he was very difficult to assimilate into the house,” Ms Donaldson said.

“It took about eight or nine months before he actually went freely, because he comes home on the weekend.”

At first the Donaldsons were satisfied with the service Sam was receiving, but over time Mrs Donaldson became concerned about Sam’s care, particularly about the number of PRN (‘as needed’) medications — heavy drugs designed to calm a patient — he was being given.

A separate complaint on these issues was lodged with the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission, which resulted in Mrs Donaldson and the care provider engaging in mediation.

Mrs Donaldson said she wanted a new provider to take over Sam’s care in the house.

This was agreed to during mediation, but it has not happened.

The Donaldsons are now negotiating with the care provider about Sam’s future, but the family is reluctant to put him through the upheaval of moving again.

Advocate ‘disturbed and disappointed’

The Donaldsons enlisted the help of Disability Advocacy NSW to guide them through the complaints process.

Regional coordinator Robert Manwaring said he was troubled by the lack of accountability during the process.

“It’s disturbing for us because we recognise that this is not an isolated incident,” Mr Manwaring said.

“We’ve been disappointed with the response of the NDIS Safeguard Commission.

“We felt that there were all sorts of issues that had been happening over quite a few years with Sam and we wanted them addressed.”

Mr Manwaring said he has been contacting the NDIS Safeguard Commission “constantly” to try to find out the status of the investigation into the complaint about Sam’s bruises, but has not received a response.

“We’ve talked to the [National Disability Insurance Agency], who are supportive of Cheryl — it appears that they don’t have the power to remove the service either.

“How many more thousands of people do we have across the state and across the country that are in these situations suffering and not feeling safe in their homes, and no one is looking out for them?”

Delays, issues are ‘not uncommon’

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has begun hearings this week, and will provide an interim report by the end of October 2020.

Romola Hollywood, the director of policy and advocacy at People with Disability Australia, said the royal commission will address issues like those being experienced by the Donaldsons.

“This is one area that we think the Royal Commission needs to take a look at — the systemic issues that may be leading to delays in implementation of investigations and findings of complaints,” Ms Hollywood said.

“It’s clearly not acceptable when someone’s health, wellbeing and safety is at risk.”

Analysis: Disability sector ripe for change

Ms Hollywood said cases like the Donaldsons’ are “unfortunately not uncommon”, and while the NDIS Safeguards and Complaints Commission is there to assist the complaints process, the situation needs to be examined.

“We do see the need for the NDIS Commission and we feel that it does play an important role in oversight and implementations,” she said.

“But in cases like this we need to look at whether it has enough power to enforce the findings of its own investigations of complaints.”

The NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission declined to be interviewed by the ABC.

In a statement it said that it does not comment on individual complaints “to respect individuals and their privacy.”

“As an independent Government body we work to improve the quality and safety of NDIS funded services and supports,” the commission said.

It said that raising a complaint “can also lead to better services for everyone.”

The office of the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Sam Donaldson’s care provider also declined requests for interviews.

Sam’s care provider said in a statement to the ABC that his case was complicated, and that Sam’s well-being was their top priority, but that it could not comment further for privacy reasons.

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