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Weatherill apologises for Oakden scandal - but won't demand ministerial heads


Premier Jay Weatherill has broken his silence on the scandal surrounding the mistreatment of vulnerable older people at a government facility in Oakden, apologising to residents and promising to meet with concerned families.

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He has rejected any wrongdoing by his ministers who have been responsible for Oakden, saying that Mental Health Minister Leesa Vlahos has his full support because it was she who instituted the inquiry which uncovered the extent of problems at the mental health facility.

However, it isn’t clear whether it was Vlahos – or a senior public servant – who was the driving force behind the review.

Weatherill, who returned from leave today, spoke to journalists at Adelaide Airport this morning before flying to the APY Lands for a community cabinet meeting. It was the first time he had spoken on the report’s findings since it was handed to the government before Easter.

He reiterated an apology made by Vlahos over the mistreatment of elderly dementia and mental health patients at the Oakden facility, which will be closed after a damning report from Chief Psychiatrist Aaron Groves.

Among a litany of criticisms, that report reveals that the Government failed to properly fund the centre and presided over a severe shortage of staff. It ignored multiple warning signs about the facility, over more than a decade.

As InDaily reported after the report’s release, South Australia’s community visitor Maurice Corcoran has raised concerns about the treatment of patients at Oakden since 2011, but he believes his reports were ignored by SA Health.

However, Weatherill said today that his minister had his full support and should be acknowledged for initiating an inquiry, without which the Government would never have known “the depth of the concerns at this institution”.

He repeatedly claimed that what occurred at the facility was in breach of the health policies of his government, effectively sheeting home blame to public sector employees rather than a failure of ministerial oversight.

Barb Spriggs, who blew the whistle on the mistreatment of her late husband Bob at the facility, said Weatherill’s comments weren’t good enough.

“It’s appalling to think that this has been going on for 10 years before this can of worms got opened,” she old ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.

Weatherill said the report’s findings were “deeply distressing for the families of those residents”, and promised to apologise in person.

“Some of the most vulnerable South Australians – those that are aged, those that have mental health care conditions, those that have extreme and challenging behaviours – need the best possible care and what we see is they’ve received sub-standard care. We’ve also seen documented abuse of some of those patients.

“So it’s deeply distressing. It must have been frightening for those residents and it must be deeply distressing for the families of those residents.”

He said he was “deeply sorry” for the abuse and neglect suffered by residents.

Weatherill defended Vlahos, saying she should not be criticised for her actions.

“The reality is that if the minister had not instituted this inquiry we would not have been aware of the depth of the concerns at this institution. And rather than criticism she should be acknowledged for the fact that she has shone a light on this facility…”

“She has my full support.”

Vlahos has repeatedly stated that she ordered the review – a claim repeated by Weatherill today – but the degree to which the minister was personally responsible for “shining a light” on concerns at Oakden remains unclear.

The CEO of the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network [NALHN], Jackie Hanson, requested and designed the review – the Minister approved the request.

The introduction and background to the review – which does not mention any intervention by Vlahos – suggests Hanson was its animating force.

On 20 December last year, it says, Hanson “requested the Chief Psychiatrist undertake an external independent review of the Oaken facility as a matter of urgency with the intention of providing a report in April 2017”.

A spokesperson for SA Health told InDaily that the department’s CEO Vickie Kaminski and Vlahos met the previous day to approve Hanson’s request for an inquiry into the Oakden facility.

Hanson also designed the scope of the review.

“From the outset, it was clear that the CEO [of] NALHN wanted the review to be extensive and to look into all matters relevant to the clinical care of all consumers within the Oakden facility, and not be restricted to any one individual,” the review reads.

“It was clear she wanted no stone unturned in getting to the bottom of the issues.”

Vlahos and her media adviser are in the APY lands today for country cabinet, and were unavailable for comment.

Weatherill said today he was disturbed that the “systems of protection” put in place by the Government had not revealed the “depth of concerns” at the institution before now.

“It has been the policy of the Government to pursue excellence in medical care. It’s the policy of this Government that people are treated with dignity and respect. It is the policy of this Government that there is a zero tolerance towards elder abuse. That was known.”

He added that these policies were instituted by successive Health Ministers.

He rejected suggestions Vlahos had ignored earlier warnings about problems at Oakden, including a letter in 2015 which highlighted severe understaffing at the facility.

She inquired about the issue with SA Health, and it provided “inaccurate” information to the Minister about the adequacy of staffing which was “deeply disturbing”.

There was no reason for her to doubt the accuracy of the advice provided by the department.

“The ministerial responsibility is this: when you become aware of a problem you … account for that problem and you fix it and that’s precisely what’s she’s done.”

The Premier said he took responsibility for the fact that a key area of mental health care had failed under his leadership.

“I have to accept responsibility,” he said.

He ruled out stepping down, saying that: “The responsibilities and the accountabilities that are necessary here are to give a full account of what’s occurred as soon as possible, and we’ve done that, and to act on the decisions that have been taken to improve the situation. They’re the natures of the accountabilities that are required under our system of government.”

While he was clear that he did not blame ministers for any of the issues at Oakden, he did point the finger at departmental staff, saying there was a “toxic culture” at Oakden.

He was confident that current chief executive Vickie Kaminski did understand the appropriate accountabilities.

Opposition Leader Steven Marshall described Weatherill’s statement as “extraordinary”.

“It showed breathtaking arrogance from a Premier who has clearly forgotten who he was elected to serve,” he said.

“It’s the height of arrogance for the Premier to not make any public comment [until] a full three weeks after the report was received by the Government… the fact he couldn’t even be bothered to speak to [Vlahos] in the two weeks after the report was received shows absolute contempt for the people of this state.”

Marshall said voters should “judge a Government based on how they treat the most vulnerable”, arguing that on successive occasions Labor has “let down our most vulnerable people”.

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