ACT News

'Dangerous' for governments to play gatekeeping role, advocates say

Disability advocates say the practice of gatekeeping was common but dangerous for governments dealing with complaints of alleged assaults in supported accommodation. 

Gary Comerford, whose family complained that he was assaulted at the Fairweather group home in April last year.
Gary Comerford, whose family complained that he was assaulted at the Fairweather group home in April last year.  Photo: Jay Cronan

The ACT government's handling of two cases of alleged assault and abuse by its support workers have frustrated and angered both the family of a disabled resident, Gary Comerford, who lives at the Fairweather group home in Lyneham, and support workers who say they were falsely accused at the Burn group home in Downer in 2012.

Neither case was properly referred to police until Fairfax Media inquiries in June. Until that point, they had been dealt with internally or handed to private consultancies to investigate.

Craig Wallace, president of People with Disability Australia.
Craig Wallace, president of People with Disability Australia. Photo: Marco Del Grande

Those involved in both investigations have claimed they were mishandled, and say the cases should have been sent to police. 

In response, Disability ACT said it took such matters extremely seriously, but only handed allegations to police if it formed a "reasonable suspicion" that the alleged acts occurred and were criminal in nature.

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The government also maintained it referred the Fairweather assault allegation involving Mr Comerford to police when it was first raised in April 2014, although that does not accord with the experience of the family.

People with Disability Australia president Craig Wallace said the tendency for governments to take on a gatekeeping role with such allegations was "exceedingly dangerous".

"I would be seriously concerned if there are instances of gatekeeping in terms of assault against people with a disability in supported accommodation," Mr Wallace said.

"They should be sent straight into the justice system, and unfortunately we seem to sometimes operate in this parallel universe where there are expectations that these issues won't be treated as criminal matters.

"Our view is that assault is assault, violence is violence, and it should always be treated as such."

ACT Disability Services Commissioner Mary Durkin, while not commenting on any specific case, said allegations of assault within disability group homes should generally be handed to police for investigation.

Ms Durkin said she was working with National Disability Services, the peak body for non-government disability services, to develop a zero tolerance policy. 

"Reporting to police has been a central element of national discussions around this issue," she said.

Mr Wallace said referrals were crucial to allowing vulnerable Canberrans access to the justice system.

He said the evidence his organisation had seen – both through the current Senate inquiry into violence, abuse and neglect against people with disability in institutional and residential settings and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – showed that gatekeeping was a "really bad process".

"It means that there's no healthy sunlight on [allegations], and dealing with them internally often doesn't lead to an outcome income where people who are dangerous are removed from the situation or face the criminal justice system."