Message from the Public Advocate and Chairperson of the Combined Boards, Dr Colleen Pearce AM
Community Visitors are volunteers who play a vital role in safeguarding the rights of people with disability and fostering their inclusion in the community.
Safeguarding in a pandemic
This year has been a very challenging and difficult time for the Victorian community.
Notwithstanding the challenges presented by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, our dedicated and committed volunteer Community Visitors continued to play an important role in safeguarding the rights and interests of people with disability. They have been a part of making this difficult time safer for our clients.
They pivoted to providing their services remotely by phone or video when prevented from visiting disability group homes, mental health units and Supported Residential Services (SRS) in person.
Community Visitors in metropolitan Melbourne, for example, were only able to attend facilities in person for 65 per cent of the year due to lockdowns.
Remote safeguarding, however, presented some massive logistical challenges as Community Visitors visit over 1400 locations.
Some Community Visitors have not conducted in-person visits this year due to health risks as 74 per cent are in the high-risk age range of 55 to 84 years. Others took extended leave due to their own or family’s health concerns; or were worried about potential exposure for those they visited.
It is a testament to the commitment of these stalwart Victorians that, despite all the obstacles, the number of visits only decreased by 10 per cent over last year.
While Community Visitors prefer to conduct visits in person to ensure that they can communicate as effectively as possible with people with disability or mental illness, they have risen to every challenge lockdown posed. They continued to connect online with residents and patients, each other, and service providers. Their technological skills increased enormously, and the vast majority are now able to operate effectively in the new environment.
One innovation was an Easy English mail-out to every consumer that Community Visitors engaged with across all three streams. It encouraged them to answer a short survey and request a personal call-back, if desired. It aimed to assure the 11,500 clients understood they had not been forgotten.
Impressively, 360 responses to the survey were received from residents in the Disability Services stream, with 58 requesting follow-up. Their key concerns were not being able to have visitors or go out in the community.
There were 64 responses in the Mental Health stream, with 16 people requesting follow-up. Their key concern was access to secure accommodation post-discharge. While the number of responses from SRS residents was small, there has been a 3.5 per cent increase in calls to OPA's Advice Service over the last two years for Community Visitors from SRS residents, their family, and supporters.
Remote safeguarding has changed the way Community Visitors work. In a relatively short period, they have moved from a totally paper-based practice to utilising electronic reporting. Although still in its infancy, the program hopes to build on these learnings on its road to digitisation.
This process was facilitated by the Disability Services COVID-19 funding which the Community Visitors Program received from the Department of Health and Human Services, as it was then, which enabled the purchase and configuration of tablets as well as internet access for more Community Visitors.
Abuse, neglect and violence
Community Visitors have been advocating for the safety and wellbeing of their clients for 34 years.
Their dogged focus on issues of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation has resulted in significant system reform—nationwide.
This includes that the most serious of the issues are now referred for investigation to the Disability Services Commissioner (DSC) and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.
This year, Community Visitors referred 51 serious incidents to the DSC and 36 to the commission in their work to prevent violence, abuse and exploitation of people with disability.
The less serious issues are reported on and dealt with at the facility level.
The abuse statistics this year are substantially reduced compared to last year, as remote forms of safeguarding required by the COVID-19 restrictions do not compare to face-to-face visiting in people's homes.
Vaccinations for people with disability
Disappointingly, the Australian Government’s failure to meet its vaccination commitments for people with disability has left the nation’s most clinically vulnerable people at risk of adverse outcomes if they contract COVID-19.
Like many advocacy organisations, Community Visitors reported their continued concern about the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations for the people with disability. Initially, disability care residents were placed in the highest priority cohort. However, as vaccines were redirected to aged care, the rollout to disability care slowed to a trickle.
The failure of the Australian Government to meet its own targets meant some service providers sourced their own vaccines rather than wait for the government program to ramp up. As a consequence, the vaccine rates for people with disability remain far too low.
Community Visitors were also concerned about the access of disability workers to vaccines. They note that it is mandatory for aged care workers to be vaccinated, but this is not the case for disability workers.
Potential legislative change
Community Visitors are empowered to perform their role under three Acts of Parliament pertinent to each stream: the Disability Act 2006, the Mental Health Act 2014 and the Supported Residential Services (Private Proprietors) Act 2010.
The Mental Health Royal Commission handed down its final report in March 2021 with one of its key recommendations being the introduction of a new Act. This change will have implications for Community Visitors, consequently, they made a substantial contribution to OPA’s submission to the Victorian Government on it.
Change to the regulation of the social services sector in Victoria, which will include SRS, also requires new legislation and this will also affect how Community Visitors work and report.
Finally, the completion of the transfer of the disability sector from the state system to the Commonwealth National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) will lead to further changes to the Victorian Disability Act. Here again, Community Visitors will be affected.
The critical issue for Community Visitors in any legislative change is that they are recognised as part of the safeguarding regime for people with disability, including the protections they provide from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Any legislative change needs to ensure that their independence is maintained and that appropriate information-sharing provisions are included so that Community Visitors can effectively monitor what is happening in the lives of those they visit.
Finally, these potential legislative changes provide an opportunity to consider whether the powers of Community Visitors can be modernised and enhanced, such as having the right to take photographs to better evidence the conditions they witness and report on.
SRS regulation and the NDIS
Consumer choice is central to the design of the NDIS. There are, however, serious doubts about the ability of the NDIS’s marketised system to adequately support the needs of people the market has historically failed.
In Victoria, there are increasing numbers of SRS proprietors setting up NDIS businesses. In some of these businesses there is a lack of transparency and accountability about the use of NDIS funds.
Again, this year, Community Visitors have documented allegations that a growing number of SRS residents are susceptible to exploitation by proprietors who are unable to explain the use of NDIS funds to pay for services previously provided by the SRS. Community Visitors are concerned that some NDIS participants may not be getting the much-needed services funded in their NDIS plan.
There is the need for improved and stronger oversight of SRS. Any regulatory change must ensure that current and prospective SRS proprietors meet a strengthened ‘ft and proper’ person criteria to ensure they are appropriate service providers for this vulnerable clientele.
A stronger regulation and enforcement system tailored to the sector’s operations that includes improved mandatory staff qualifications and increased compliance requirements for proprietors is required to meet the increasing resident complexity and the resulting challenges.
There is also an urgent need for greater collaboration between Community Visitors, the state regulatory system and the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding arrangements to address the gaps in the regulatory and oversight frameworks. Each system operates in their own silo and there are impediments to each body sharing information. Appallingly, this gap has resulted in some people with disability being left in situations of neglect, exploitation, and abuse.
Finally, Community Visitors have continued to be Victoria’s human rights warriors for the many vulnerable people they visit. In these
truly unprecedented times, they have diligently and selflessly continued to provide support and encouragement to isolated and vulnerable members of our community.
Their willingness to go that extra mile through their innovative remote safeguarding approaches is commendable. On behalf of all Victorians, I thank them sincerely for their ongoing, selfless commitment to people with a disability and mental illness.
There is no doubt that their effort has had substantial and positive impacts on the many thousands of Victorians who live in the regulated environments they visit.