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Disability royal commission: woman with disability sexually assaulted in park after men banned from visiting her accommodation

·4 min read

A woman with cerebral palsy was sexually assaulted in a public park after her disability accommodation provider refused to let her meet her date in her own home, the disability royal commission has heard.

Kicking off a seven-day session on Tuesday, the inquiry will examine the issues of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation in disability services through the case study of two disability group homes run by an NDIS provider.

It is also exploring the right of people with disabilities to have sexual relationships, and the need for NDIS providers to safely facilitate this.

The inquiry heard evidence from Sophie, the pseudonym given to a 34-year-old woman who lives with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, a mild to moderate intellectual disability and left hemiplegia, which means she is paralysed on that side.

Related: Terminally ill NDIS participant facing re-hospitalisation after funding cut for 24-hour nurse

Sophie, in her twenties when she was assaulted, said she was treated like a child by Life Without Barriers staff, which she “hated”.

At one home she was not allowed to have a key to the property, and at a second house, in Lismore, staff would enter her room without knocking.

She was also banned from having male visitors after 6pm and couldn’t be alone with a male guest with the door closed.

This included a man who she’d formed a committed relationship with – and who became her fiance – after they met at a day program.

Asked how she felt that her fiance, who lived in Ballina, was not allowed to stay the night because it would be a “hindrance”, Sophie said she felt hurt.

Related: Sydney disability home’s board also accountable for alleged abuse of residents, royal commission told

“I’m an adult. I’m not a kid,” she told the inquiry.

Sophie sent a written complaint to Life Without Barriers, but did not receive a response, she said.

After that relationship broke down, Sophie told the inquiry she began online dating and had one casual sexual experience, which she enjoyed.

In September 2017, she went on a date with a man she met online. The man took her for a takeaway dinner, and then to an isolated park, where he sexually assaulted her, the hearing was told.

Sophie was in hospital for three days. The attacker was eventually charged, convicted and imprisoned, the inquiry heard.

Counsel assisting the commission, Patrick Griffin SC, said he would not “invite the commission to make any finding that sexual assault in this case was caused by [Life Without Barriers]”.

Related: How Australia’s vaccine rollout overlooked people with disabilities

“However, it remains important to assess whether [Life Without Barriers’s] response to Sophie’s desire to have an intimate relationship was appropriate to facilitate her goals of intimacy [and] whether the response frustrated those goals,” he said.

The inquiry heard Sophie had wanted the man to visit her at home where she “felt most comfortable”, or “on her own turf”, as she put it.

“However, the rules [imposed by Life Without Barriers] required her to leave home if she wanted to date, or even spend time with a person after 6pm,” Griffin said.

In the aftermath, Sophie said her support workers became “cold”, declining to talk with her and reducing the amount of support they provided.

Sophie’s parents, known to the inquiry as Greg and Michelle, were angry Sophie had been allowed to go on the date with the man.

The inquiry was told the man, who arrived at 9pm, had expressed surprise to be picking Sophie up from a disability group home.

Greg said this should have been a trigger for staff to intervene, at least by inviting the man inside for a further conversation.

However, they also acknowledged Sophie’s right to have sexual relationships.

Greg and Michelle also questioned Life Without Barriers’s response.

They said the organisation did not provide counselling, though Sophie received some counselling support through the director of public prosecutions.

In a meeting with a Life Without Barriers manager, Michelle said she was told “Sophie had put the other residents at risk” and that staff were “too frightened to do night shift because they didn’t know if anybody would turn up”.

“And as a result they had to pay for security cameras around the house,” Michelle said. “That was their only conversation they had about the sexual assault.”

Griffin said the royal commission would probe the response of the provider’s leadership and managers, rather than individual support workers, throughout the later hearings.

Life Without Barriers is expected to be called as a witness during this week’s hearings.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

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