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Family abuse of the disabled: the new cover-up

By Patricia Eisele - posted Tuesday, 9 May 2017


Imagine how easy it would be for the family of physicist Stephen Hawking to abuse and then silence him. Once his communication equipment was removed, he would become defenseless. No phone calls, notes or emails. Even if he were physically able to walk into a police station, how would he make his plight known to others?

Dr Hawking is protected by his prominence; but what about gifted, disabled Australian adults who become victims of family financial and physical abuse and are silenced after they reach out? What happens when public institutions responsible for their safety turn a blind eye, covering for the family 'status quo' instead of protecting the vulnerable individual?

When a cover-up develops within an institution or system, its genesis often can be traced to weak organisational policies that allow abusive behaviours to exist for years in plain sight.

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This was evident in the case of domestic violence –at one time considered by authorities to be a personal matter between a husband and wife –and clergy abuse, which destroyed lives for decades when it was considered a private issue for church administrators to resolve with families. Now both are considered criminal acts.

The cover-up traditionally ends after public exposure stimulates a call for stronger policies – ones that overrule the status quo practices that excused or enabled the abuse for so long. When we know better, we do better.

Consider the case of Colby Hickey, a 30-year-old disabled adult who holds two TAFE diplomas and was awarded a placement at Deakin University to study Environmental Science. In 2011, Colby (who does not require a family guardian) was awarded $170,000 a year in direct cash payments by the Victorian Department of Human Services (DHS) and another $10,000 in federal educational funds for classroom assistants.

Each month, $14,000 in cash was deposited –to cover specific line-items detailed in a DHS contract –comprising payments for carers and other services necessary for Colby to live independently, complete his bachelor's degree, start a career, and become a contributing member of society. It sounds like a lot of taxpayer money, but it was half the taxpayer cost of housing him in an institution where he would have no opportunity to enter the workforce, pay taxes, and eventually lessen the taxpayer burden for his services.

The cash was not allocated through a state-registered service agency to arrange for his care. It was instead given to a family member –Colby's adoptive mother Jane Hickey. Each month, the $14,000 was placed in an account in her name. She signed a DHS contract stating she would use the money only for his designated disability services.

In June 2012, Colby reported to five separate authorities that his adoptive family was embezzling from his fund. The inhumane punishment and abuse that started the same month at the hands of his family has continued for nearly five years. The institutional cover-up to protect them from accountability for financial and physical abuse began almost immediately.

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How did the embezzlement begin? Weak administrative policies gave control of the money to his family without agency authority to audit the bank account into which the money was deposited. This allowed the family to withdraw cash at will. In the first eight months of disbursements, bank statements indicate a substantial portion of the $110,000 deposited was withdrawn, even though the fund contract required all services to be paid by invoice to individuals and agencies specifically trained to provide Colby's disability services.

When Colby Hickey reported the embezzlement to Villamanta Disability Legal Services in June 2012, his confidentiality was immediately breached and his mother was informed about his allegations. The following week, he reached out to his GP. The doctor told his mother about his visit. By the end of the month, he had reached out to two lawyers, a psychologist, and a disability advocate. The advocate reported his confidential allegations of embezzlement and punishment back to his adoptive mother.

I was brought into these events tangentially because I was Colby's full-time professional assistant, hired to help him finish Swinburne TAFE, develop his business, and enter Deakin University the following year. I was employed by his sole-trader company. He was my boss and I accompanied him to school and meetings at his request.

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About the Author

Patricia Eisele is an independent writer and researcher. She holds an MBA and a PhD from RMIT University. Although Dr Eisele has a personal interest in these issues, she is not employed by any organisation, nor does she represent any organisation or individual.

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