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Disability groups question advocacy services

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Members of South Australia’s disability community say a state-funded advocacy service duplicates existing services and raises concerns about a potential conflict of interest when dealing with clients.

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Disability community group Our Voice SA and disability organisation Citizen Advocacy South Australia told InDaily while a number of disability services existed in South Australia, individual state-funded advocacy was largely missing.

Our Voice SA said the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Commission and the SA Health and Community Services Complaints Commission were available to resolve disability concerns, but believed those agencies were limited in their scope, leaving cracks in disability services.

Citizen Advocacy South Australia program manager Rosey Olbrycht said her federally-funded organisation was among a handful of national advocacy initiatives that existed to advocate for South Australians living with disability but were stretched beyond their limits and reliant on three-yearly Commonwealth funding.

“Unfortunately, as much as I’d like to believe it won’t happen, I believe there will be another Ann-Marie Smith, because we can’t be everywhere for people and people will fall through the gaps,” Olbrycht said.

Adelaide woman Ann-Marie Smith died in hospital in April from septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores and malnourishment. At the time, the 54-year-old woman with cerebral palsy had been assigned a single paid carer by NDIS-administered non-government organisation Integrity Care SA.

Smith had been transferred from SA disability agencies to the federal NDIS in 2018. While she was no longer under state care, her death sparked public outrage and highlighted questions about what more could have been done to protect her.

In response to Smith’s death, the state government launched a coronial inquiry and established the SA Safeguarding Task Force, with Premier Steven Marshall saying at the time: “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep vulnerable people living with disability protected.”

“This case and the alleged horrific conditions in which Ann-Marie Smith was living have sickened us … and we must make sure this can never ever happen again.”

In its report, the disability safeguarding taskforce made seven recommendations and found 14 key safeguarding gaps, including funding state disability advocacy and the expansion of the adult safeguarding unit to respond to reports of abuse or neglect for adults living with disability of any age. The safeguarding unit had previously only been available for older South Australians.

The recommendations were intended to highlight how safeguarding and oversight could be improved for people living with disability after SA Police found Smith had spent 24-hours a day for more than a year sitting in a chair, with little food in the house.

In response to the recommendations, the state government appointed Uniting Communities in December as the advocacy service for vulnerable South Australians living with disability.

The new three-year funding allocation towards disability advocacy was the first time in recent years the state has funded individual advocacy services for people living with disability despite other states doing so.

But our Voice SA project lead Debbie Knowles said Uniting Communities $1.8 million contract has duplicated existing supports already provided federally to help people with concerns relating to the NDIS.

She said advocacy was needed to help people living with disability with issues that weren’t related to the scheme – such as of disability supports and community isolation – as well as for people living with disability who weren’t yet covered by the NDIS.

Knowles said the expansion of the adult safeguarding unit did not address representation in advocacy concerns and that the South Australian group for people living with intellectual or learning disabilities was deeply concerned over potential conflicts of interest with Uniting Communities acting as both a service provider and advocacy organisation.

“OVSA (Our Voice SA) members want an advocacy service that provides individual advocacy so that their voices can be heard when they need to talk about things that  matter to them, like if they are not happy with their service provider or they cannot get out into their community due to lack of funds etc,” she said.

Uniting Communities disability advocacy service manager David Ferraro said the legal team, which handled disability advocacy, was independent from the service provider arm of the organisation.

“Even though we’re based within Uniting Communities, we have a lot of processes and policies in place that ensure we remain independent,” he said.

“Not only are we looking at Uniting Communities requirements, but being a law centre, we’re bound by other rules and practises for lawyers, conduct rules that are setup by the law society and we’re accredited through the Australian Community Legal Centres association.”

Ferraro said while people living with disability may need to use the Uniting Communities service provider homepage to access the advocacy service currently, the organisation was exploring other marketing campaigns to differentiate itself.

“A lot of people who contact this service either contact independently or someone on their behalf is contacting the service and then it’s direct through to our law centre and they come directly through to our disability advocacy service.”

He said the service would help people living with disability with concerns relating to the NDIS.

Disability service providers are intended to help people living with disability with a swathe of services including finding appropriate work and being engaged in the community.

But Our Voice SA chair Ian Cummins said a service provider should not be providing advocacy, with people from within the disability community not adequately consulted before funding was allocated to Uniting Communities.

“This is wrong. The advocacy should come from someone who is not a service provider,” he said.

“Even though they did not ask Our Voice SA, I want to know who they did ask. Which people with disability did they talk to. This keeps happening. This is not right.”

Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said Uniting Communities was appointed “following an open, extensive and competitive tender process”.

“Uniting Communities demonstrated they could provide quality, multidisciplinary advocacy service to support people with disability, their families and carers to navigate the NDIS,” she said in a statement.

“Uniting Communities is operating the new advocacy service through its independent Uniting Communities Law Centre.”

Lensink did not say which disability groups were consulted regarding Uniting Communities appointment.

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