Abuse victims ignored: Disability inquiry

·3-min read

Women and girls with disability are at vastly higher risk of physical and sexual abuse but are frequently disbelieved when they ask for help to stop it, a royal commission has been told.

The long-running inquiry has resumed public hearings and is delving into the confronting issue of the abuse of women and girls with all forms of disability, in all settings, including foster and respite care, special schools, and group homes.

Senior counsel assisting the disability royal commission Kate Eastman SC provided a sobering summary of submissions detailing the prevalence of the problem and its devastating consequences.

"Women with disability make up around 20 per cent of the total Australian population but they are nearly half of all domestic violence victim-survivors," she said on Wednesday.

"Women with disability have told the royal commission they have experienced severe physical and sexual abuse, as well as financial abuse, at the hands of a spouse.

"Women and girls have documented their experiences of coercive control by families, parents, guardians, including guardians who socially and geographically isolate and financially exploit women in their care."

Ms Eastman said women who'd spent time in group homes had shared disturbing stories of asking for help but not being believed, or being branded "trouble makers or aggressive" when they have complained.

"In one submission a woman with disability told you she was assaulted by a fellow resident but left with no choice but to continue living with the perpetrator when the managers of the group home did not believe her, and refused to take any action."

Kathryn Fordyce is the CEO of Laurel House, a specialist sexual assault service in Tasmania.

She said the scale of the problem was, in her experience, off the charts and poorly understood by many professionals working in the disability support sector.

"You should almost assume that somebody with a disability has been sexually assaulted, which is just appalling to think about," she said.

She spoke of the unique set of barriers people with disability can face in even understanding they have been abused.

Ms Fordyce said educational aids were sometimes censored, denying people the ability to describe what might be happening to them.

"We might decide that a three or a four-year-old child doesn't need the page in a communication book that has penis, and vagina and ejaculation on it. So we don't put it in their communication aid.

"But at what point do we put it in their communication aid? Do we actually create environments that encourage and are conducive to allowing people with disabilities to disclose."

Even if people have the language to disclose abuse, they often lack the opportunity to report it safely and confidentially because they may be dependent on abusive carers or support staff to take them to a police station.

The hearing ended with a damning assessment of the inconsistent and fragmented laws that deal with family violence across Australian states and territories.

Law Council of Australia president Dr Jacoba Brasch said people had different levels of protection, and different access to the law, depending on their post codes.

The council wants all Australian jurisdictions to adopt a nationally consistent definition of what constitutes family violence. It has called for a focus on controlling, coercive conduct that causes fear and not - as is currently the case in some states - on narrowly defined familial relationships.

"You can have all the rights in the world but if you don't know how to access the jurisdiction of those rights, if you can't access it, or you don't know who to turn to, those rights are rather meaningless," she said.

"The barriers to accessing justice were many, and continue to be many."

Hearings resume on Thursday.

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