Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Australian parents upset that their disabled children may be seen as "trespassers" in respite care

From the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia:

People with severe disabilities will be treated as "trespassers" if they overstay their assigned time in government-funded respite centres, a draft Government policy says.

The document, posted on the website of the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care, has outraged parents of severely intellectually disabled children.

The policy is designed to dissuade parents from abandoning their children - often adults - in respite centres because they cannot care for them at home or get access to permanent accommodation such as group homes.

The document sets out for the first time a process for dealing with "blocked" respite beds. But its aggressive tone and threat to reassign parental rights to the state or a guardian has frightened and angered parents.

Carers will be asked to sign "a contract of stay" which specifies exact arrival and departure times at the state's 73 respite centres. If the contract is broken, the disabled person becomes a "trespasser" and the department "no longer accepts responsibility for providing care".

There are 35 people permanently occupying respite places meant for stays as brief as a day or two.

The Opposition spokesman for disability services, Andrew Constance, said it was "mean-spirited and callous" for the NSW Government to treat families in crisis in this way. He said parents left a much-loved person in respite because of "complete exhaustion, emotional breakdown or illness", and it caused "much heartbreak and sorrow".

But a spokesman for the department said people who outstayed their time in respite reduced access for many other families, and might put those families at risk of breakdown.

It is unlikely the department will evict a "trespasser". But failure to collect the person will set in train a series of actions designed either to return them home or place them on a register for alternative accommodation.

Under the plan, parents must accept the first accommodation place offered, even if it is far from where they live. They can appeal against the placement, but not to an independent arbiter.

Following the appeal, the department will be able to apply to the Supreme Court to reassign parental responsibility for children younger than 17 to the state, or to the Guardianship Tribunal to appoint a guardian for those aged 17 and older.

Belinda Epstein-Frisch, a spokeswoman for Family Advocacy, a group for people with disabilities, said: "The policy criminalises people with disabilities and their families who are struggling for want of government-funded support."

Maree Buckwalter, whose 22-year-old son Alexander has severe intellectual disabilities and uncontrolled epilepsy, said she was eligible for two days' respite care a month because of the severity of her circumstances. Most parents get less.

She said she was frightened by the department's language.

"When someone reaches a point they can no longer do the caring, the only way they've been able to get care is to leave a person in respite. I dress my child, feed him, bathe him … and no one can strip me of my parenthood. I don't want them to get guardianship because I might object to where they want to place him."

A department spokesman said there would be wide consultation before a decision was taken on adopting the policy.