Disability Royal Commission

Public hearing 13: Disability services (a Case Study)

The Royal Commission’s 13th Public Hearing was held between Monday May 24th and Friday May 28th. The purpose of this hearing was to examine the experiences of people with disability who are NDIS participants and who live in a disability residential setting managed by the service provider, Sunnyfield Disability Services.

A case study detailed the experiences of Melissa, Carl and Chen (names altered to maintain confidentiality) who, since 2017, have been living together in Western Sydney in supported residential accommodation, managed by Sunnyfield  Disability Services. Sunnyfield is a member based, for purpose, not-for-profit registered charity, providing support services for over 1,200 people living with disability in New South Wales and the ACT.


Melissa and her sister/guardian Eliza experienced ongoing tension and conflict with Sunnyfield regarding Melissa’s tenancy in supported accommodation. In June 2018, Sunnyfield alerted Eliza that it would terminate Melissa’s services, based on concerns for staff wellbeing, as well as in the best interests of Melissa herself. Eliza was told that by September, she would need to source new accommodation for Melissa. After complaint to the NSW Ombudsman and the NDIA Quality and Safeguards Commission, Sunnyfield agreed to continue to provide support services for Melissa until alternate accommodation was sourced

Over the past two years, Eliza had been unable to find suitable accommodation for Melissa, with the constant threat of eviction looming over theirs heads, as this notice of termination was never withdrawn by Sunnyfield. The communication between Eliza and Sunnyfield was described by the latter as hostile, passive aggressive, highly demanding, and “unhinged”. Eliza reports that her proactive checking in on the care being provided to Melissa, questions and clarifications posed to Sunnyfield staff, and desire to be proactively involved and consulted in decision making processes was motivated by and understanding of Melissa as someone who requires complex and highly skilled care. Eliza also expressed that she felt the decision to evict Melissa was due to spite, as a result of the tense relationship between Eliza and Sunnyfield staff.

Carl and Chen:

Sophia, Carl’s mother had noticed that the support workers often seemed stressed within the residential accommodation. In May 2019, Carl began to display anxiety around one particular support worker, referred to in the account as SP2. Sophia has also received feedback from other staff about concerns for Carl’s safety. She also learnt that during a few months prior, shortly after the Christchurch mosque shooting, another support worker (SP1), was heard saying they “would have shot them all.” It should be noted that Carl is of Middle Eastern heritage. After two instances of Carl being injured under Sunnyfield’s care, it was reported by an anonymous source, as well as by Sophia herself directly to the manager of Sunnyfield and the Quality and Safeguards Commission, that SP1 and 2 had behaved aggressively and violently towards Carl and his co-resident Chen.

Both workers were suspended and independent police investigations were arranged. Both workers were charged with multiple cases of assault, but these charges were dropped in court. During independent investigation, 6 of the 25 allegations concerning SP1’s treatment of Carl and Chen were sustained;  two of the 25 allegations concerning SP1’s treatment of Carl and Chen were partially sustained; and 17 of the 20 allegations concerning SP2’s treatment of Carl and Chen were sustained. During this investigation, a worker reported to the police that SP2 also physically abused Melissa, dragging her naked down a hallway by her wrists.Systemic issues were also identified during this investigation; Racial vilification amongst staff, a lack of understanding about the importance of reporting, and a culture of fear amongst staff members about the process, and a lack of understanding about what constitutes violence, neglect, abuse, and exploitation.

The findings of the hearing include the following points:

  • The importance of internal management in residential services that addresses issues head on, takes accountability for mistakes, aims to work collaboratively.
  • The importance of internal policy that reflects the aforementioned point. Clearly laid out communication procedures for complaints, including timely responses,
  • The need for advocate who can also take on a coordination role. This takes time when the person has very complex needs.
  • That the absence of a case management system places a burden on families to step in to this role.
  • That without proper training and supervision around identifying reporting violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation, staff culture can easily develop around uncertainty and fear around following through on best practice.
  • The importance of background checks and investigating the basis for worker’s past terminations of employment.
  • An important conversation was had about the potential presence of CCTV cameras in the house in communal spaces. The ethics of this were discussed. It was highlighted that the presence of cameras would have potentially added accountability. Melissa and Carl particularly can’t verbalise what did or didn’t happen to them, footage of the abuse and violence would have assisted in charging the perpetrators. Privacy of workers and residents was highlighted as an ethical challenge.