The state’s volunteer watchdogs who investigate abuses of the mentally ill could have their powers weakened by the Napthine government’s new mental health act.
Community visitors, who inspect services for these vulnerable people as well as the disabled, have told embattled Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge the reforms could make it more difficult for them to expose abuse and neglect in mental health facilities.
One of the most contentious parts of the new act is a requirement for mental health staff to provide reasonable assistance to community visitors ”as far as practicable”. Penalties for staff who fail to provide assistance to community visitors have been scrapped, as has a requirement for services to be visited at least once a month.
Public advocate Colleen Pearce said while a number of her concerns had been resolved, the bill would give services an excuse not to provide reasonable assistance to community visitors. ”Community visitors are volunteers and there should be no impediment to the way they carry out their functions. The wording ‘as far as practicable’ has the potential to create difficulties.”
The commission said the scrapping of penalties for non co-operative staff and the wording ”as far as practicable” could ”be seen as a weakening of community service’s ability to compel a service to co-operate and facilitate the proper carrying out of their functions”.
The volunteer taskforce, who arrive at facilities unannounced, have exposed systemic abuse in institutions such as Kew Cottages and a departmental cover-up of the assault of a disabled man by his carers in a Clayton facility in 2011.
Last financial year, 68 mental health community visitors made 1325 visits to 122 facilities throughout the state and identified 1130 issues.
A government spokesman said community visitors’ powers would be expanded to allow unannounced visits to new facilities such as prevention and recovery centres.
This article first appeared on ‘The Age’ on 14 March 2014.