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Public Advocate calls for overhaul of SRS sector

The Public Advocate, Dr Colleen Pearce, today called for a new independent, safeguarding body to protect some 5000 vulnerable Victorian SRS residents from abuse and neglect and to ensure they are cared for properly.

The facilities, Supported Residential Services (SRS), were regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) during the reporting period of the Community Visitors Annual Report 2020 tabled in Parliament today.

“SRS have had longstanding abuse, violence, safety and neglect issues,” Dr Pearce said.

“The deficiencies in the regulatory regime [pp 8 & 31] are well-documented in this year’s Community Visitors Annual Report which has crystallised the board’s view of the need for an effective, independent safeguarding regime for the sector.”

Ongoing infestations of bedbugs and cockroaches, poor food hygiene and intimidation of residents, families and visiting professionals were among 45 critical issues of concern reported by Community Visitors at just one SRS facility in Melbourne during the year [p.31].

Community Visitors further identified 1838 issues during 828 visits to 127 SRS facilities throughout Victoria including physical and sexual assault [p.19], medication mismanagement [p.23] and inappropriate food [p28].

In one SRS, Community Visitors were routinely abused, yelled at and intimidated [p.31]. The continued obstruction of the volunteers from undertaking their legislated safeguarding role was reported to the department yet the attacks continued unabated.

Community Visitors are also concerned about the potential for residents to be charged twice for services; once through their SRS fees and again via the NDIS. Some residents have claimed their NDIS funds have “disappeared”; others are concerned about the lack of choice of provider when the SRS operator is also an NDIS provider [p 29].

“The lack of transparency around the use of NDIS funds, resident complaints about the use of their funds and the neglected appearance of some residents is disturbing,” Dr Pearce said.

SRS are privately operated facilities that provide accommodation and support for Victorians who need help with everyday activities. They are regulated by the Victorian Government under the Supported Residential Services (Private Proprietors) Act 2010.

Typically, each SRS has about 30 residents with a diverse mix of needs, ranging from those who are ageing, to younger people referred from mental health or homelessness services and people with a disability. SRS have a low resident to staff ratio of 1:30 [p.18].

Dr Pearce noted many SRS receive substantial State Government funding to support the wellbeing of vulnerable residents (pp 19 and 30).

“Many SRS residents have multiple conditions and complex needs and are among the most marginalised members of our community. They include a significant number of people with serious mental health issues which impacts on their ability to live harmoniously in a congregate care environment [pp 23 and 32].”

The annual report also cited substance abuse, including heroin, ice and synthetic marijuana, as associated factors in incidents of violence in SRS, stating that in many cases, delays or an inability to access an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program exacerbated these problems [p. 20].

Other issues of concern included finding a 12-year-old girl living with her mother at an SRS and not attending school [p. 27], reports of some facilities barring entry to health practitioners and support workers inaccurately citing COVID-19 visitor policy guidelines, and staff failing to properly record or under report serious incidents [p. 27.

This year, OPA sent two consolidated referrals to the department containing 145 abuse referrals recorded by Community Visitors. The department acknowledged receiving the reports but did not respond to the issues raised prior to the end of the reporting period (p 20).

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