‘No one to call out to’: Sydney disability group home resident allegedly punched and kicked

The mother of a 24-year-old man with severe intellectual disability has told an inquiry a support worker allegedly punched and kicked her son and once pulled his chair from under him so he would fall down.

The disability royal commission is this week examining allegations of violence, verbal abuse and racism at a group home in western Sydney operated by Sunnyfield Disability Services.

Charges were laid against two support workers over incidents involving three residents, but the commission heard on Monday they were dismissed by a magistrate. Certain allegations were later substantiated by an independent investigation commissioned by the company and the two workers were fired in late 2019 and early 2020.

The royal commission heard that one support worker had alleged during court proceedings that another staff member had kicked and punched Carl, one of three residents alleged to have been assaulted.

Under questioning from senior counsel assisting the commission, Kate Eastman, Carl’s mother, Sophia, said that watching the court proceedings had been the “hardest thing I could have done”.

“Hearing that he has punched Carl, he has kicked him, he has dragged him, he’s pushed a chair over so that Carl can fall off the chair deliberately … pulling his hair back like forcefully to force medication down,” she said on Tuesday.

“I can only imagine how Carl would have felt in those moments when any of this was happening, when there’s no mum and dad, no one else in sight to see what’s happening and who he can call out to defend him.”

Sophia added: “Carl can’t speak up. He can’t say anything. He can’t say, yes, this happened to me, he did that.”

The independent investigator told the inquiry it had been difficult to substantiate many of the allegations, noting there was “only one witness”.

Jennie Piaud, who conducted the investigation into allegations of misconduct against the two support workers, found six allegations were sustained and two were partially sustained. The remaining 17 allegations were “not sustained”.

Asked by the chair, Ronald Sackville, why she could not sustain the claims, Piaud said: “I found [with] a lot of the allegations there was only one witness and [the accused support worker].”

“Over the course of the investigation there did seem to be a pattern emerging that a lot of these things were similar but the actual allegation itself I just felt could not be sustained because I just didn’t have enough weight either way,” she said.

Under questioning from Sam Duggan, counsel for Sunnyfield, Piaud agreed the culture at the home had “improved considerably” since her investigation began.

Sophia told the inquiry no one from the company had apologised to her and she said she remained concerned for Carl’s safety in the home.

“I feel it’s a culture of cover-up, I’m sorry to say,” she said. “Because we get told stories that I smoothed over so that we don’t react as badly. I think we don’t really know the truth and that’s the thing that concerns me.”

Eliza, the sister of resident Melissa, who was also allegedly assaulted, told the inquiry on Monday the company had responded to several of her complaints by trying to evict her sibling.

On Tuesday, Eliza described one alleged incident in which a support worker dragged Melissa by her wrists between the kitchen and the bedroom while she was naked.

The company’s chief executive, Caroline Cuddihy, will give evidence later this week.

She has already told the commission in a statement: “I wish to express my regrets and deep sympathy for the pain and distress suffered as a consequence of the events which occurred at the house.

“In the course of preparing this statement, I have spoken to a number of staff about the events at the house,” Cuddihy wrote. “All of those staff have communicated to me their upset at the thought that the residents at Sunnyfield have been mistreated in this way. I feel the same way.”

The inquiry continues.

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