Chief Executive of Life Without Barriers(LWB), one of Australia’s largest disability providers, has issued a public apology for physical and sexual abuse of residents at its group homes. In a hearing on Tuesday to the disability royal commission, CEO Claire Robbs admitted that she had not informed the company’s board when a woman in its care was raped. Her apology was directed to a disabled woman by the pseudonym Sophie.
The inquiry was started by the royal commission after Sophie (34), who lives with cerebral palsy, said that she was sexually assaulted by a man while she was a resident of one of the homes under Life Without Barriers. According to her, she was subjected to strict rules like restriction against receiving visitors after 6 p.m. and being told to leave the door open when she had visitors during the day. These rules, in her opinion, effectively prevented her from inviting men to visit “on her home turf”, forcing her to have dates away from the house. The assault happened in 2017 and the offender has since been convicted. The disability royal commission is examining the role and responsibility of Life Without Barriers in preventing and responding to abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence against people with disabilities who receive its services.
In the hearing, Robbs stated,“I do not condone the violence towards Sophie, and I offer Sophie and her family our sincere apology for the harm caused to her, including for the manner in which our investigations into the matter was undertaken.” However, she declared that since the assault did not occur under LWB care, she did not raise the issue with the incident system.
In a response to her statement, Commission chair Ronald Sackville questioned whether the method of her assessment could be made without investigating why Sophie was outside her home at the time of the assault.“(It) suggests you made an assumption that as long as this event occurred off premises, Life Without Barriers could not be responsible," he said. Counsel assisting Patrick Griffin SC also expressed a similar sentiment, “What I'm suggesting to you is the imposition of those rules in effect made LWB in part responsible for what subsequently happened because Sophie was denied the opportunity to have someone in her home, and consequently was put in a more vulnerable position.”
Claire Robbs also issued apologies to Natalie, Rebecca and Robert, residents of the LWB homes who faced mistreatment while under their care. Rebecca (pseudonym) is a woman with autism who told the commission last week of a 2018 attack by another resident at a Melbourne group home, in which she was dragged across the floor by her hair. Another resident, Natalie, made an allegation of indecent assault for which a support worker was eventually found not guilty. Robert was traumatised by the violence surrounding him.
Life Without Barriers is a not-for-profit company that turns over $750 million a year and offers its services to more than 300 communities across Australia. The case has raised the necessity of recognising and validating disabled people’s sexuality. In Sophie’s case, she declared that the support workers at her former group home failed to support her with her relationships and sex. It also draws light to how such providers handle the responsibility of those under their care as the Chief Executive revealed she had never visited any of the homes where witnesses before the commission had been abused and mistreated. Life Without Barriers is expected to be called as a witness during this week’s hearings as it continues on Wednesday.