Though the Oakden Aged Care Mental Health facility closed down months ago, the nightmare is still not over for the loved ones of the residents who faced elder abuse.
The Oakden facility in South Australia, which had numerous complaints of neglect and elder abuse that spanned more than a decade, began their senate enquiry last week.
This inquiry gave families and loved ones a chance to hear from those who were responsible for the facility, as well as share their own stories and experiences with the senators present.
The intention behind the inquiry goes beyond the abuse in South Australia, and hopes to seek insight and improvements in the aged care quality assessment and accreditation system – particularly Australian Aged Care Quality Agency.
“I am looking forward to questioning them and of course taking evidence from those who have loved ones who were in Oakden at the time,” said Senator Helen Polley.
“It’s obvious that the regime of announced visits for accreditation has failed.”
“We have to ensure we have world’s best practice right across this nation when it comes to protecting, caring and respecting older Australians,” she said.
A Loved One’s Ordeal
Stewart Johnston’s mother was one of the residents at Oakden – and was victim of repeated abuse.
Stewart’s mother was supposed to stay at Oakden for four weeks in 2008 as an outpatient to receive treatment for chronic pain and rheumatoid arthritis – but was moved to a public hospital after she told her son she was slapped by a staff member and thrown onto a toilet and left for an hour.
“I will never forget the look in her eyes when she was telling me the story of how badly she was treated and how physically hurt she was,” Stewart said.
“It was a day that certainly changed my family’s life from then on, we have never really gotten over it.”
“We were flogged off right from the start from the people in charge of Oakden who made it clear to me that it was a completely isolated event, had never happened before and would never happen again,” he said.
“It wasn’t until nine years later I saw the Oakden report and it became clear that there was an ongoing issue that claimed so many more victims after my mum.”
“Oakden has been the tip of the iceberg … the level of media scrutiny has allowed aged-care abuse to finally be exposed as a national issue”.
“I have been approached by over 65 individual families who have come forward since April … the majority of the Australian public has their eyes open now … fears have been confirmed.”
Stewart utilised the inquiry as an opportunity to really highlight what people have had to deal with, “we are going to finally be able to hear from the people involved and who were responsible for much of Oakden, we will hear from them directly about what happened and what their reasons or excuses are”.
“That’s very important because the public have been shielded and we have all been kept in the dark and today is the first opportunity to actually hear the truth.
“I think the committee will realise once they listen to the personal stories in depth and have the opportunity for a question-and-answer session that this a very big issue that isn’t going to be able to be fixed and finalised with a stroke of a pen.”
“We, [the families], have an overwhelming need to understand how it was allowed to be covered up for so long, who knew what was going on and chose not to report it.”
South Australia Health Speaks
Jackie Hanson, the senior SA Health official responsible for the facility, was confronted by senators as to how the abuse managed to go for so long without detection
Northern Adelaide Local Health Network chief executive said that “it was a very closed environment. The wards were locked wards”.
“The clinical view from the staff working there was that it wasn’t really a safe place or appropriate for too many visitors to enter because it stimulated the residents to the point they would get very upset”.
“My personal opinion of that in my reflection of what I now know and what I’ve heard from meeting with staff and families, that closed environment was a very toxic environment, so people who worked there didn’t recognise what they were doing or walked past it.”
Hanson said that it was not until she spoke to family members that she learnt of the abuse and neglect, “I asked them why they didn’t complain – and they complained internally to the management team – and I think I’m not speculating when I say they were intimidated in relation to using any of the external agencies to make further complaints,” she said.
“People who could have complained were intimidated.”
Thought Oakden received full accreditation for the past seven years, Hanson says that the process does not include family members of the residents.
“They all without exception report observing the same issues, the same behaviours, the same treatment over many, many years. And if they had been involved in the accreditation process because the residents had no capacity, we would have seen a different outcome”.
“Although there were 44 standards and there was quite a lot of rigour on the surface around those standards, the process itself did not deep dive into individual care.”
“The buck stops with my position – with the CEO – and I’ve been on record in saying that.”
The Government Agency Responds
The Aged Care Quality Agency were represented at the inquiry with CEO Nick Ryan, speaking for the commonwealth agency.
“The fundamental failure rests with the provider,” he told the committee.
“What happened at Oakden is absolutely unacceptable. Everyone involved in the Oakden facility and that includes myself as the CEO of the agency and my team will look for every opportunity and are already taking active steps that a facility such as Oakden is picked up next time and the abuse uncovered”.
It reportedly took South Australia’s chief psychiatrist 10 weeks of observation to reveal the rate of abuse as there was a “toxic” culture of covering things up.
“There was complicit compliance going on in that facility. There was a culture of cover-up in that facility,” he said.
He told the inquiry that the Government were planning to make improvement to ensure incidents like Oakden won’t ever happen again.
“I accept responsibility that our system needed improvement and I’ve taken the active steps to deliver that,” he said.
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