In the years since I became hyper-aware of how the intellectually disabled have been treated (or mistreated) in New Zealand, I have not been impressed with what I have found. I know that the wonderful and kind institutions are less likely to make the news, but I also know that what makes the news is only ever the tip of the iceberg. In researching this post it was far too easy to find examples of multiple victims and multiple offending institutions; this is not just a story of a few people affected in a couple of rogue institutions (as is made clear by various quotes I’ll share from those stories too).
In this post I present a range of news stories from recent years, which illustrate the following concerning trends:
- The intellectually disabled in facilities, are too-often treated like animals or prisoners;
- Their and their families’ complaints are often ignored, or dismissed without adequate investigation, until (and sometimes even after) it is too late;
- Carers are frequently untrained or significantly under-trained;
- Carers and offenders frequently deny or down-play the incidents, even in the face of evidence from multiple sources over multiple incidents;
- The abuses are ultimately “State-funded,” with lack of responsibility or accountability on behalf of the State Ministries in charge of that funding.
What do we do about this? We start by raising awareness, because these things are going on behind closed doors, to people who are often non-verbal or very verbally challenged. We demand that offending carers, institutions and Ministries are held criminally accountable. We recognise that this ill-treatment and the responses to the ill-treatment, reflect wider societal attitudes that abuse of the disabled is somehow understandable or acceptable, that the disabled are in someway “lesser” human beings that deserve or can expect maltreatment, even under professional care.
Writing this post, and collecting these stories, is my small effort towards raising awareness about these patterns of abuse and dangerous attitudes.
Here are just seven stories from across New Zealand, and my summaries of key points and important quotes. Most of the stories concern people with autism, as that is the disability I have been most likely to read about over the years and is present in the stories I most easily recall. Many of the patients have other co-occuring intellectual disabilities. (Keep in mind the number of other intellectually disabled individuals whose stories I haven’t encountered yet, to give you a feel for why this will just be the tip of the iceberg of abuse in our facilities and by our State-funded carers):
“Boy left to eat grass at horror home.” (May 5th, 2013, Taranaki Daily News.) Victims: multiple victims of many incidents of both abuse and neglect. Facility: Parklands, in Pukekawa. “Ministry audit reports, obtained exclusively by the Sunday Star-Times, say the facility harked back to institutions of the 1950s.” Long history of documented abuses. People who ran the service deny the truth of the complaints. Staff were untrained, and in charge of 19 people. Families had suspicions, but were always reassured by the staff that the complaints and concerns were false. “Despite the allegations of abuse, some of which were substantiated by ministry staff, the couple are not facing criminal charges.” Critique within the story: “You couldn’t do it to an animal but it’s OK to do it to the intellectually disabled.”Includes a call for the Ministry to be held responsible too.
“Mum: Why did my son die?” (Nov 18th, 2012, NZ Herald). Victim: Otto, 21 year old autistic man died in a house fire under the care of a carer. Facility: A house in Glendene, Auckland (not his home). “On the night of Otto’s death, police told his mother his body had been found in a locked room inside the locked house. She said she was also informed the house caught fire while the caregiver was out buying food.”
“Carer of disabled teen denies assault.” (Oct 30th, 2012, Nelson Mail.) Victim: Sixteen year old boy with various intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism. Facility: Purpose-built Exeter St property, Nelson. The boy lived under the care of highly trained carers. His family raised their concerns, the individual accused of the actions denies the claims, despite multiple witness accounts supporting the occurrence of abuses. Official records of the incidents had “disappeared” from the files. Claims against them include inappropriate restraint techniques and violence: “That a Nelson woman repeatedly assaulted a severely intellectually disabled teenaged boy, including punching and kicking him, dragging him by his hair, and holding him against a wall by his throat.”
“Facility criticised over drowning of autistic boy.” (Jul 25th, 2012, NZ Herald) Victim: Julian Stacey. Facility: Run by Spectrum Care, Auckland. Eleven year old Julian, who had autism, escaped from a carer facility, and drowned. Staff on duty at the time were inexperienced. There was a history of successful escapes by the child. (See my extended post on the details and (lack of) consequences.)
“Autistic patient locked in room.” (Apr 28th, 2012, Stuff.co.nz.) Victim: Ashley Peacock. Facility: Tawhirimatea, Porirua. Thirty-three year old man with autism and various other mental health concerns and intellectual disabilities, who thinks he is in prison and can’t understand why. Suffering long-term seclusion, and very poor living conditions: “It is devoid of any furnishings. There was a mattress on the floor, no toilet, no access to fresh air, minimal sunlight.”
“Home criticised after autistic resident harmed.” (Feb 13th, 2012, The Press) Victim: Female, with autism, epilepsy, and intellectual disability. Facility: Mary Moodie Family Trust facility, Christchurch. Dragged across floor by legs and arms, causing her physical harm. Other victims also identified, 14 residents at the facility in total. Under-trained workers. Family was not notified of the key incident.
“My brother deserves better.” (Jun 21st, 2008, NZ Herald.) Victim: Twenty-four year old Jonathan, an autistic man, in care since he was 14. Facility: House run by Timata Hou organisation, Auckland. “What’s disturbing is how to reconcile that this service is sanctioned by both the Ministry of Health and the Family Court. If this is the standard of autism care in New Zealand, then it appears we haven’t advanced much from the days of locking people in the asylum.” And: ” Dr Hickey is extremely critical of the state of autism care in New Zealand, saying it’s 20 years behind the US and Britain and about 10 years behind Australia.” Jonathan is regularly restrained, both by physical means and by heavy use of medication (leaving him “catatonic” at times). “Jonathan has fewer rights than someone in prison.” The Ministry of Health funds this substandard care, but refuses to fund the family to supply the care with support themselves, a policy which is ironically intended to protect individuals from poor-quality service. “At present there is only a facade behind which are services that range from inappropriate through to appalling…”
To each of these families and individuals, I want to extend my condolences for what you’ve been through, and my respect for your willingness to fight the system as it stands, and to make your stories heard.