A LEADING mental health watchdog has called for further investigation of sudden deaths at the condemned Oakden facility, saying new evidence has cast suspicion over old closed cases.
Principal Community Visitor Maurice Corcoran AM says he holds grave concerns over several pneumonia deaths, a choking incident and falls after having read about conditions at Oakden and the harrowing report of Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves last week.
“When you see in the paper about the person getting around with no shoes and socks on in the middle of winter, you just wonder,” he said, adding: “The report opened up a whole lot more questions.”
The Coroner has announced an investigation into the 2008 killing of Graham Rollbusch, 70, who died after an attack for which an 84-year-old fellow patient was charged.
Investigations ceased when the accused man died before the trial could commence.
Mr Corcoran said there must be examinations of several other sudden deaths.
The chief psychiatrist’s report uncovered a culture of cover-up and poor quality of care at Oakden.
“Aaron Groves’ report is extensive and thorough and, I think, highlights a whole range of practices that we certainly weren’t aware of,” Mr Corcoran told The Advertiser.
“I’ve just gone back through a whole range of reports and I just wonder. To me, a question would be also there’s been a number of quite sudden deaths occur out there over the years.
“These weren’t flagged as concerns. They were just relayed as ‘it’s unfortunate that people with dementia and these sorts of conditions are more prone to pneumonia and a whole range of things’. Given what transpired through the report, we can’t help but think: ‘What happened?’”
Mr Corcoran said his reports flagged two or three people dying from pneumonia within a month in 2014. He also holds concerns about deaths from falls and choking.
Mr Corcoran’s records also include reports that families were told relatives had gone off water but quickly consumed several glasses when offered by loved ones, showing clear dehydration. Dr Groves’ report found the physical environment at Oakden heightened dehydration risk.
The Community Visitor scheme, which was started in 2011, recruits staff, often volunteers with expert backgrounds in the field, to attend and examine the state’s mental health facilities.
Mr Corcoran’s office worked with the family of Oakden resident Bob Spriggs for months before they publicly blew the whistle on the site, and says they were met with significant and “unacceptable” roadblocks as they sought to obtain a response to abuse allegations.
His annual report to the State Government last year also raised explicit fears about Oakden, including “significant concerns” that it was classified and resourced as a subacute facility but accepted patients with complex problems and occasionally violent behaviour.
Mr Corcoran said his reports to SA Health also raised concerns about staff numbers and training as far back as 2014. That was a year before one family’s understaffing complaints were raised in writing and dismissed by Mental Health and Substance Abuse Minister Leesa Vlahos.
Opposition health spokesman Stephen Wade said there must be a full clinical audit of deaths at Oakden over the past decade to establish if more cases should be reported to the Coroner. “The chief psychiatrist’s report highlighted the failure of Oakden staff to comply with mandatory notification requirements,” he said.
“We can have no confidence that staff or management were complying with their legal duties to report deaths to the Coroner under the Coroner’s Act.” Mr Wade said the Coroner was “not funded to deal with a decade of cover-up” and the Government owed it to families to deliver all resources required to fully probe Oakden.
Ms Vlahos said any historical claims of abuse uncovered by SA Health or raised by family members of Oakden patients would continue to be referred to the SA Police for action.
Ms Vlahos said a State Parliament committee on elder abuse should also examine Oakden and urged anyone with information to call a hotline on (08) 7485 4369 to discuss their concerns.
This piece was originally published on ‘The Advertiser’ April 25, 2017.