Former disability worker claims she was fired for complaining about lockable 'coffin' for autistic kids

Autism centre's 'lockable coffin' back in spotlight as Victorian disability inquiry kicks off

Autism centre's 'lockable coffin' back in spotlight as Victorian disability inquiry kicks off

A disability worker in Victoria says she was fired for complaining about the treatment of autistic children, including the use of a ‘coffin’ in which some students were locked.

The claims are contained within one of more than 100 submissions to a Victorian inquiry into autistic services.

ABC reports the ‘coffin’ was used at a day centre for autistic children, ASPECT Heatherton, according to former manager Karen Burgess.

The scandal involving the lockable box erupted last year after Ms Burgess first raised her claims, sparking a police investigation.

The saga has re-ignited as the Victorian enquiry kicks off, with a statement from the MP chairing the probe saying a culture of cover ups in the disability sector needed to end.

Karen Burgess said she dismantled the box and informed head office of its use. Photo: ABC

Maree Edwards said whistleblowers in the industry had been punished for reporting cases of abuse.

"That's not acceptable any more," she said.

On Wednesday, Ms Burgess told ABC’s 7.30 she was horrified when she was shown the lockable wooden box after starting work at ASPECT Heatherton, saying she had been fired for taking a stand against practices she witnessed during her employment.

"I was told that the box was for the purpose of putting clients in," she said. "The person who told me was a team leader."

"I said, how do you get the clients in the box? And he made a shoving, pushing motion. As if he was mimicking pushing somebody in the box."

Ms Burgess said ASPECT removed two staff members from the centre when she dismantled the box and forwarded her information on it to head office.

But other complaints went unheeded, she said, and her efforts to take the matter to authorities outside of ASPECT cost her her job.


In July 2015 she took her concerns to Victoria's Disability Services Commissioner which in turn contacted her employer.

"About 57 minutes after that conversation, I was fired in an email," Ms Burgess told 7.30.

She said during her time working with ASPECT Heatherton she saw clients left soaked in urine, medication being forcefully shoved into their mouths or, in come cases, not administered at all.

Yelling and screaming was common, she said. It was not unusual for children to be locked outside and left unattended, sometimes all day.

The response from her manager was to be told that abuse was a reality for all disability organisations, Ms Burgess said.

Former employee Karen Burgess re-stated her allegations against ASPECT on ABC's 7.30 on Wednesday. Photo: ABC

“And if I can't handle the abuse, maybe I need to consider my position in the disability industry," she said.

She did exactly that. Ms Burgess told ABC she left her career in disability services altogether after her three months working with ASPECT.

In a statement published to its website at 7.47pm Wednesday, ASPECT said independent investigations had already probed Ms Burgess' claims with no adverse findings against the organisation.

"A story was broadcast on the ABC's 7:30 Report tonight in relation to this organisation about allegations made last year by a Ms Karen Burgess," it read.

Last year the organisation said the box had been left in the facility when ASPECT took over management from Alpha.

It was removed five months after the takeover, The Age reported in October.

Bendigo state Labor MP Maree Edwards is chairing an inquiry into autism services in Victoria. Photo: Facebook

"There have been five independent external investigations into Ms Burgess' allegations. All have cleared Aspect of wrong-doing."

Ms Burgess’ claims were among 150 submissions to a Victorian inquiry into autism support services in the state.

As part of its investigation, the Family and Community Development Committee will look at the adequacy of services provided by commonwealth, state and local governments.

The probe will look at services for autism across the disability health, education, housing, sport and employment sectors.

The committee will also look at how the National Disability Insurance Scheme will provide autism services, and the anticipated demand for services in Victoria.

Latest from Victoria

feedback