Ann-Marie Smith, 54, had been living alone for many years in the South Australian suburb of Kensington Park.
Ms Smith was living with cerebral palsy and received daily visits from a female carer who was being paid to provide six hours of care per day.
The presence of the carer’s car indicated that she was being looked after, but neighbours admitted that they had not actually seen Ms Smith in more than a decade.
On 5 April, Ms Smith was rushed to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where she had surgery to remove rotting flesh from the pressure sores that marked her body, but sadly, she died the following day.
Late last week detectives revealed that Ms Smith’s death was a result of severe septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure wounds, malnutrition, and issues connected to her cerebral palsy.
Ms Smith’s carer was interviewed and then suspended by her employer following her client’s death before she was officially fired last week as the cause of Ms Smith’s death was officially determined.
In a recent press conference, SA Police’s Detective Superintendent, Des Bray, revealed that Ms Smith’s carer was part of an ongoing manslaughter investigation.
He then went on to provide more details to the incredibly sad and tortured existence that Ms Smith was forced to endure prior to her death.
“Ann was living her days and sleeping at night in the same woven-comb chair in her lounge room for over a year,” Detective Superintendent Des Bray said.
“That chair became her toilet, and there was no fridge, and investigators were unable to locate any nutritional food in the house.”
“We have to make sure something like this never happens again.”
The home of Ms Smith’s carer has since been raided by authorities, while the carer’s employer, Integrity Care SA, is now being heavily scrutinised by the industry watchdog.
In a statement released on 17 May, Integrity Care revealed it was “shocked and appalled” by the death of Ms Smith and determined to understand what went wrong.
The provider also claimed they had been misled by the carer involved and assured the public they had performed welfare checks on all of the carer’s other clients and they are in good health.
However, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission has accused Integrity Care of failing in its duty to take “all reasonable steps to prevent and respond to all forms of violence against, and exploitation, neglect and abuse of, people with disability.”
Winds of change?
Revelations across the last two years have made it clear that Australia needs to improve when it comes to providing care for vulnerable people.
The Royal Commission into Aged Care has managed to generate some mild mainstream media coverage, but the fact that we are also in the midst of a Royal Commission into the violence, neglect, and exploitation of disabled people would come as a surprise to most.
It is extremely unfortunate that it takes a story as vile and shameful as what happened to Ann-Marie Smith in order for the plight of disabled people to reach the masses, and many hope that this tragedy marks the beginning of change.
Earlier this week, SA Premier Steven Marshall announced the forming of a task force to investigate gaps in the disability care system and make recommendations, while the Federal Minister for the NDIS, Stuart Robert, said that the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission were investigating Ms Smith’s case.
South Australia’s Human Services Minister, Michelle Lensink, admitted that she found out about Ms Smith’s story more than a month after she died but she is now advocating for spot checks on vulnerable people to occur every three months to help close gaps in the system.
A spokesperson for the Disability Advocacy & Complaints Service SA (DACSSA) recently spoke with HelloCare and outlined the issues that they believe people living with a disability are facing and what changes need to be made to ensure that they are being well looked after.
The human rights of people with disability with regards to abuse, neglect, violence, and exploitation have not been championed as they should be,” said the spokesperson.
“Ann-Marie Smith should not have had to die from years of abuse and neglect, before the nation was ready to treat the welfare of people living with disability with critical importance.”
“This reflects an attitude in Australia that does not value the importance and richness of the lives of people with disability and their human rights.”
A number of people living with a disability are vulnerable and dependant on their carers to ensure their wellbeing.
This can make them more susceptible to abuse and also reduce the possibility of disclosing their abuse.
Assumptions regarding cognitive capacity can also result in claims of abuse and neglect not being taken seriously.
According to the DACSSA, safeguards need to be better engrained in legislation and policy and reinforced in the training and auditing of services, while the broader community also needs to become more aware of disability abuse in order to remove barriers that can prevent concerned citizens from speaking up.
DACSSA believes that responding to disability abuse must be a mandatory education requirement in addition to clearances enforced by the government for those working in the sector.
They also feel that people living with a disability would benefit greatly from services that have been adequately funded and exist to ensure that people have access to confidential and free support to assist them to navigate complaints and abuse disclosure processes.
According to DACCSA, these services must also be independent of the NDIS to avoid conflict of interest.
“It is critical to ensure people have access to confidential and free support to assist them to navigate complaints and abuse disclosure processes,” said the DACSSA spokesperson.
“It should not be the responsibility of a person with a disability to safeguard themselves from abuse and neglect perpetrated by their support workers.”
“The abuse of people with disability can no longer be covered up with excuses or veiled as incidents.”
“Every instance of disability abuse in Australia is a major crime and an extreme violation of the human rights that people with disability deserve and are entitled to enjoy, but are denied.”
Image courtesy of SA Police