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Disability services giant urged to compensate woman for sexual assault inside group home

ABC News, By the Specialist Reporting Team’s Celina Edmonds

Posted 28.3.2023


The disability royal commission has told one of Australia’s largest disability service providers to consider paying financial compensation to a woman who was sexually assaulted by one of its support workers.

Life Without Barriers (LWB) has been asked to examine whether it should make an “ex gratia payment” to a woman, who the disability royal commission refers to as Natalie, following an indecent assault in 2014.

It is the first time in the commission’s almost five-year history that it has specifically recommended a person with disability receive a monetary payment.

The recommendation follows a hearing in December 2021, which revealed cases of abuse, violence and neglect in two group homes run by LWB — one in Melbourne and another in northern NSW.

During that hearing, the royal commission was told Natalie, who uses a wheelchair, was sexually assaulted by a male support worker while in one of LWB’s group homes.

Natalie lives with cerebral palsy, intellectual disability and is mostly non-verbal.

She moved into the LWB group home near Lismore in 2012.

Her mother, known as Jennifer, had requested that all of Natalie’s personal care be carried out by female support workers.

Jennifer and Natalie are pseudonyms used by the commission to protect their privacy.

In 2015, Jennifer was contacted by LWB and informed police were investigating an indecent assault on Natalie by a male support worker.

Natalie was about 25 when she was assaulted.

‘Abuse’ and ‘exploitation’ inside group homes

The man was charged with aggravated indecent assault of Natalie and being a carer “having sexual intercourse with a person with cognitive impairment”.

At his jury trial in September 2017, the key issue was not whether or not the support worker touched Natalie during personal care, but whether the physical contact was for a bona fide hygienic purpose.

The carer was acquitted of all charges, but the royal commission accepted that the man “touched Natalie inappropriately and the conduct should not have occurred”.

The inquiry found that LWB failed to heed multiple warnings about the man’s behaviour.

Concerns were raised on numerous occasions between 2012 and 2015, but it was not until 2015 that he was suspended from duty.

The inquiry also found that following the sexual assault incident, LWB failed to take timely action to ensure that all staff in the Lismore house were trained in recognising and preventing sexual abuse.

Complaints about Natalie’s personal care being carried out by male staff continued to be raised by her family and advocates in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The commission said there was a pattern of LWB giving assurances that Natalie’s personal care would not be provided by men and then breaking those assurances with little or no communication to Jennifer.

This exacerbated the trauma that had already been experienced by Natalie and Jennifer.

In March 2020, Natalie was rushed to hospital and nearly died following a bowel obstruction.

The commission found that LWB did not keep proper medical records for Natalie and failed to seek medical care for her in a timely manner prior to her hospitalisation.

Natalie moved out of the group home in late 2020 and is no longer a client of LWB.

Giving evidence in December 2021, following four days of testimony from group home residents and their family members, LWB chief executive Claire Robbs apologised.

Despite this, the disability royal commission found that Ms Robbs was “reluctant to accept that there had been any significant deficiency in the operations of services provided by the organisation”.

“We find LWB failed to protect residents in the Lismore houses and Melbourne house from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect,” its report said.


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Disability services giant urged to compensate woman for sexual assault inside group home – ABC News