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Major Oakden concerns were never raised in Cabinet: Weatherill

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Premier Jay Weatherill says major concerns about the Oakden older persons mental health facility had never been raised in Cabinet since he joined it in 2002, despite horrific conditions existing there for over a decade.

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Weatherill told ABC Radio Adelaide today the facility had not been raised at the highest level of government over the past decade and that he found that “disturbing”.

“It’s a disgrace that this has happened and it’s happened in a way that – look, frankly in the period that I’ve been in the Cabinet I just had not heard this facility being raised,” he said.

“It just simply has not been raised as an issue that we needed to deal with, which for me I find disturbing given what’s been going on there for at least a decade probably more.

“… I have not got an explanation about why a facility that’s in this state and had this toxic culture could’ve remained hidden from the decision-makers in government for this extended period of time.”

He later tempered his comments, telling a press conference that there may have been discussion of Oakden in Cabinet, particularly in 2007 “when the facility didn’t received its accreditation”.

However, he said he recalls no discussion of any concerns raised to the degree that had been outlined in Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves’ report into the facility, released last month.

The Premier also revealed he did not visit Oakden during his time as aged care minister between 2004 and 2008, because it came under the health portfolio.

The Opposition has pointed out that during Weatherill’s tenure in 2006, the Office for Ageing – which was responsible to him – was working on a State Dementia Action Plan in 2006, which related to Oakden.

Groves’ report recommended the facility be closed after he discovered “grossly inappropriate conduct” by staff including patients being assaulted and other routine practices which he described as “abhorrent” and lacking all humanity. The facility cares for elderly patients with severe dementia and mental illness.

Weatherill said it was “a source of deep distress for me that some of our most vulnerable citizens in South Australia have been kept in what can only be described as a remnant of a very old mental health care system”.

Asked on radio this morning whether there was a pattern of indifference within his Government – given earlier failures in child protection – Weatherill said a “common factor” in a number of scandals was that “every single one of them had come to light in all of their essentially in all of their ugliness because of inquiries that have been initiated by me and my Government”.

“Now … do we deserve much credit for that? Not much.

“But we certainly deserve credit for actually shining a light on it and that’s the only point I make here.

“There’s no particular credit to be had.”

Weatherill reiterated support for the responsible person in his Cabinet, Mental Health Minister Leesa Vlahos.

At a media conference this morning, he defended Vlahos’s actions, including her apparent failure to take firm action after being warned in 2013 via a constituent’s letter that staffing levels at the facility were far too low.

He said the minister had “no basis” to believe the information she received from her department about staffing was incorrect.

He also appeared to spread the blame for the scandal, listing the Public Advocate, the Commonwealth aged care accreditation agency, the Chief Psychiatrist and the Community Visitor’s Scheme as having direct responsibility for overseeing the conditions at Oakden. (InDaily has reported previously that Community Visitor Maurice Corcoran says he has consistently raised concerns about Oakden since his scheme was introduced in 2011).

The Premier said he would meet with the families of Oakden residents to apologise, in particular to say “sorry about what happened to their loved ones, and what happened to them when they tried to raise [their concerns with the department]”.

His latest comments came as psychiatrists called for a new model of care and purpose-built facilities for vulnerable older people with dementia and mental illness.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said it had long held concerns over the care of patients at Oakden, and had brought these to the attention of the State Government in 2013.

College president Professor Malcolm Hopwood said the problems at Oakden reflected more than problems with staff practices: “it reflects a whole service that has had deficits in governance over a long period of time, resulting in neglect of resourcing and an absence of a workable model of care”.

“The college has raised concerns with the government over at least the last two years […about] the level of care at Oakden,” he told InDaily.

“The model of care that Oakden employed was … out of date.”

Hopwood said he did not know whether staffing levels at the facility were among the concerns that were raised by the South Australian branch of his organisation in 2013.

The college’s chair of the faculty of psychiatry of old age, Dr Jane Casey, said there were successful models of care interstate and overseas that the State Government could adopt.

“The new service will require collaboration between the range of healthcare disciplines who have specialist expertise in the area,” she said.

“It is vital that patients, families and carers, and other community stakeholders from the aged care sector, are consulted.”

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