No Place For The Vulnerable


Read part one of Benjamin Potter's report, on the killing of Rebecca Lazarus.

Family violence was identified by Judge Jennifer Coates as the underlying issue in the murder of Rebecca Lazarus by her boyfriend Travis Cooke in 2007. But there is little evidence to suggest that the relationship with was physically violent prior to the crime being committed. Oversight in supported residential services varies.

The only person who recalls some form of close contact is Daniel Penny, a close friend of Lazarus. “Over the year and a half that I have known them both they were always arguing. He would go to punch her in the face but would stop before actually hitting her.”

Grace Dharumasena, a former manager at Hazelwood Residential Services where Lazarus lived at the time of her death, told police that “Rebecca has always been there for Travis … I never saw him assault her, and she has never complained of him assaulting her … I have never seen her with bruising or marks on her.”

Neither of the managers at Hazelwood recognised the “ongoing chronic risk” that Cooke posed to other residents. Six years on from the murder, Grace and Sena Dharumasena still manage the facility. They declined to comment when approached by New Matilda.

In line with recommendations made by the coroner in her report on Lazarus' murder, the Victorian Department of Health promised to produce a training module about family violence. Five months later it is yet to surface. Although a mention of the incident with a link to the Coroner's Court website was included in the February 2013 SRS newsletter, the department did not include Lazarus’ name, making it impossible to reference the Coroner’s report.

Keran Howe, Chief Executive of Women with Disabilities Victoria, met with Domestic Violence Victoria and the department on 18 December 2012, following the report. Howe tried to shed light on the development of the training module:

“The wheels are moving very slowly aren’t they? I think five years is too long to get an effective response to this and we know that violence against women with disabilities is more common than for other women. In regard to the training, we have to meet again.”

This certainly won’t be the first time the Coroner’s Court of Victoria investigates a death in a supported residential service (SRS). A report is expected following the death of 64-year-old Phillip Hewitt, allegedly killed by co-resident Ron James Watson in May 2012 at Bellden Lodge, an SRS facility in Croydon North. The Inquest into his death is expected to take place after all legal proceedings and appeals have been completed.

The two killings are only a slice of the extent of violence in SRS facilities in Victoria.

Figures released by the Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) show that violence in SRS facilities grew from 27 reported cases in 2010-2011 to 69 cases in 2011-2012. Resident-on-resident abuse is the highest category with 47 cases reported last year.

According to Angela Landsmann, area organiser for the Health and Community Services Union, the incidents reported to the department are only a fraction of the real number. “I find that hard to believe as I see there were that many [cases]on a daily basis,” she said. “I think there is under reporting.”

The OPA is also responsible for the liaison between residents and staff in SRS facilities through the "community visitor" program. These volunteers visit each facility up to once a month and are under increased pressure to identify "wrong doing”. Department of Health authorised officers are rarely seen more than once a year, sources say.

The OPA’s 2012 report reveal cases where proprietors blackmailed residents into silence. Residents reported they were told not to talk to community visitors for fear of reprisals if they did.

Fiona Sanders was only 18 when she entered Lake Learmonth SRS, now known as Landora Care. Sanders told NM about the aggressive approach of her proprietor towards community visitors. “We were told to sit down, shut up and behave ourselves … they stood over us while those people were there,” she told NM.

There is no mistaking that some private SRS are run as money-making operations, but Alvi D'Souza, who was the manager and proprietor of Hazelwood Supported Residential Service until the beginning of 2007, is a strong advocate for quality care and is now the proprietor of a new SRS facility in Ferntree Gully. He is keen to point out the constant battle to make ends meet. A lack of legislation dictating how much rent can be charged or any dedicated ombudsman responsible for controlling rates make business unpredictable.

“What I want is some authority to control the rent, what is the average rent and what that should be and what is the increment under control everybody has to pay. We can’t milk the cow for all it’s worth,” D'Souza said.

He is worried that the extortionate rates will eventually force his business to close. “What can we do? The landlord puts everything up but our salary doesn’t go up. Staff and rent are the two major killers. That’s why we have to work extra hours to make ends meet, otherwise the staff won’t stay.” Overworked and underpaid, D’Souza is determined not to allow his exhaustion affect the quality of care his residents receive.

Although tougher legislation was introduced in 2012 for SRS, it made no reference to the placement of high-risk individuals in low-care facilities. There is also currently no independent reviewer for SRS.

In response to the suggestion of independent oversight, the department told NM that “SRS proprietors are subject to a broad range of regulation and monitoring activity. The level of scrutiny is appropriate to the size of the sector”. 

The Victorian Government failed to increase financial support for non-government disability services in its 2013-14 budget. Although the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has gathered bipartisan support it is currently unclear whether it will cover those living in supported residential services.

Travis Cooke was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne on 23 June 2009 on one count of murder. He was unfit to be tried under the Crime (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Act 1997, so it was a trial by judge alone and was a direct verdict of not guilty by reason of mental impairment. The judge made a supervision order committing Cooke into custody at the Thomas Embling Hospital for a period of 25 years.

This story was originally written as an assignment in the School of Journalism at Monash University.

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