Group homes still places of abuse and violence for people with disability

The closure of large institutions housing people with disability, with the resulting development of group homes has not eliminated institutional forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability, particularly those with serious intellectual disabilities, a report from the Disability Royal Commission says.

The Royal Commission released its report on one of its early hearings, “The experience of living in a group home for people with disability” on 30 September 2020.

The Royal Commisison undertook the inquiry as one of its early public hearings, ‘because a person’s home is the place where they should feel and be safe and secure’.

“The Royal Commission also wanted to examine whether living in a group home creates a greater risk for people with disability to be subjected to violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation,” it said.

The Royal Commission heard evidence from witnesses with direct experience of living in group homes, , advocacy groups, government agencies, a large service provider, and other experts and academics in December 2019.

The Royal Commission heard from people with disability living in group homes who lived with abuse, violence and lack of choice and control for decades.

Instead of feeling protected in their own home, some residents experienced sexual assault, beatings and verbal abuse, among other forms of mistreatment, the report said.

Some group homes had insufficient staff, with a lack of training to deal with high numbers of residents which ‘resulted in abuse between residents, and neglect, and a diminished quality of life’ for them, it said.

One witness said she had lived in a hostel with about 16 other residents where she was sexually abused.

She also said that the hostel provided training to live in a Community Residential Unit, but that some of the training, like ‘intense cleaning’ was like slave labour, while she was not given a choice about moving to CRUs, or who she lived with.

These decisions were made by staff without consulting her, the report said.

Another witness, Dr Peter Gibilisco, is an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne who completed a Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology in 2006.

Dr Gibilisco, who has Friedreichs Ataxia and used a wheelchair since he was 23 years old, said from his own experience, he believed people’s individual needs within group home environments were being neglected because of an emphasis by ‘management’ on standardised practices.

The report said evidence from the hearing showed that reforms and innovations designed to overcome systemic abuse, such as that occurring in large institutions, could produce unintended adverse consequences.

While group homes had improved the “degrading conditions” often experienced by people with disability living in large institutions, the report said it was clear that ‘the advent of group homes has not eliminated institutional forms of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation experienced by people with disability, particularly those with serious intellectual disabilities’.

“People with disability have the right to autonomy – that is, the right to control their own lives, to make their own decisions and to exercise choice,” the report said.

“The evidence at this hearing indicates that although the experiences of people with disability in group homes is not uniform, far too many people are denied autonomy” in the choice of accommodation allocated to them, their carers and their co-residents.

In some cases, this has allowed the perpetrators of violence or abuse to continue in the same accommodation as the victims, with reporting mechanisms and oversight of disability support service providers often being ‘inadequate’.

As well, the needs and preferences of individual residents in group homes often were not prioritised, and routines were organised for the convenience of staff and management, leading to a diminished quality of life ‘and, too often, to neglect and abuse’.

One witness, Kevin Stone, said many people with disability were not aware there were people around to look out for them, often living in fear and believing if they speak up, they will be hurt, either physically, psychologically, or in the opportunities that are denied to them.

He said the only strategy he had ever seen that was capable of making a difference was advocacy, particularly self-advocacy because it empowered people to stick up for themselves.

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