Oakden, a failure for all of us

By RON HOENIG

I have never been to Oakden, but reading the Oakden report reminds me of the back wards at the then-Hillcrest Hospital.

Way back in the early 1980s I went there to do research on a play I was writing about profoundly mentally and physically disabled children in a Victorian state institution, based on a book by Rosemary Crossley and Annie McDonald called Annie’s Coming Out.

My guide must have wanted to teach me something about the politics of caring for the disabled, and took me to one of the back wards of the institution. It was a truly horrible experience.

A group of perhaps 20 profoundly intellectually disabled men ranging in age from about 17 to 40 were walking in circles in a dingy cell-like space and above them, too high to be seen or comprehended, a television was silently showing a morning TV program.

They were dressed in similar unremarkable clothing, many of their faces were tortured with spasms and they appeared to be utterly devoid of consciousness. Whatever was going on in their minds was totally locked in.

I was shaken by the whole experience and gasping for air as I left the place. I certainly never wanted to visit it again.

I know that changes in the mental health system have meant at least some of those people are now in much more comfortable community care in smaller houses with staff to care for them.

ICAC Commissioner Bruce Lander QC’s report Oakden: A Shameful Chapter in South Australia’s History released late last month shows a long list of politicians and health officials were profoundly uncurious about the conditions of some of the most vulnerable people in the State.

Oakden, which was opened in 1982, as a number of sex-segregated specialised units for older people with mental health problems, was known to be deficient as an aged care facility long before then.

The health officials started receiving complaints about the treatment of patients at the centre as early as 2007 and then-minister Gail Gago, a former nurse, visited the centre.

But as Commissioner Lander points out: “Apart from one visit by Mr Hill to Makk and McLeay in 2010 and a further visit to Howard House, which by then had closed, no minister visited the facility between March 2008, when Ms Gago visited, and February 2017, when Mrs Vlahos visited”.

It was a festering sore of a place where the State Government warehoused their old, very vulnerable and profoundly unphotogenic problems and hoped they would go away.

It would have cost at least $500,000 to bring it up to scratch and was there any public appetite to spend that sort of money on those people?

Because Oakden had the trifecta which made it profoundly uninteresting to politicians and an embarrassment to bureaucrats. Its consumers – that word – were old, poor and mostly mentally debilitated.

For staff working there, it seems, the combination of patients who were often difficult to handle and required almost saintly care, and the truly disgraceful physical conditions must have felt like being sentenced to one of the circles of hell.

Even if you had the desire to do your job compassionately and care for these vulnerable and difficult patients, lack of funding and time and the most erratic of administrations meant it was impossible to do your job well.

To health bureaucrats, it may have seemed like it was a black hole of failure. Nobody was going to achieve their KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) by peeling off the scab. There was no career enhancement from raising the issue.

It had the ability to embarrass the Minister.

To be fair, all of the ministers involved, except Leesa Vlahos, expressed some degree of contrition for their sins of omission to Commissioner Lander.

Yes, the politicians did show a profound lack of curiosity but there is a larger issue.

It wasn’t just they who preferred to keep the fate of these very vulnerable people behind closed doors. It was us, too.

What I fear is that after the political ordure has finally been exploited, blame apportioned and tidied up, we will still be left with the same situation.

It was all of us looking away from the reality of what was taking place at Oakden and in the back wards at Hillcrest. It was only those whose families were intimately involved who had a visceral need for justice.

We should congratulate the journalists who brought this story to our attention.

We have already had stories of mistreatment of similarly vulnerable people in private aged care facilities in our leafy suburbs.

There is no electoral percentage in providing funds to support these people. The mental health of younger and fitter people is a better investment. And it looks better in the media.

The current situation of an ageing population, the current state of public health which means we are living longer lives and more likely to experience dementia as we age, and the increasing impoverishment of groups which had previously been relatively comfortable means unless we are very careful, the same shoddy practices will re-emerge.

It’s correct but easy, to turn our anger on former Minister Vlahos and the five senior health officials Commissioner Lander has judged to be at fault.

But we should also turn our gaze on ourselves and ensure our own political choices and priorities take into account those people who form the trifecta of willed ignorance – the old, poor and mentally disabled – or the next generation of journalists will be unearthing the same sad stories of neglect.

 

 

 

Image Source: ABC

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