Rabu, 14 Maret 2012

Coroner investigates licensed boarding house

The NSW State Coroner has this week been conducting an inquest into the deaths of six persons, between 2009 and 2010, at a licensed boarding house in Marrickville.

The Coroner's Court has heard that the residents died from a range of causes, including heart disease, pulmonary failure, drug toxicity and choking. Most had 'core health problems' that were evident before their deaths, but which went largely untreated. In a number of cases, staff did not immediately call an ambulance, but instead called for the boarding house operator to ask what to do. 
It also heard that the resident who died of drug toxicity had taken an overdose of the antipsychotic Olanzapine, consistent with having ingested 25-50 tablets. The medication had been administered by the boarding house cook.

As for the boarding house generally, it was unclean, needed basic maintenance work, was understaffed and, of the staff it had, many were untrained in first aid. Residents chain-smoked in bed, rarely had their rooms cleaned and 25 of them used a single bathroom without a fan.

In our experience of talking with people about housing, many do not know that licensed boarding houses (also known as licensed residential centres for people with disability, or LRCs) exist in our housing system. Many assume that people with disability, low incomes and a need for housing will be served by our public housing and social service systems. But still 600 or so such people are housed in LRCs, which are privately-owned and operated for profit. Established as a response to deinstitutionalisation in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these are operations are like miniature institutions: segregated, isolating and abusive.

But those who already know about LRCs don't need to hear another expose of the wretchedness of these places, such as the coroner's inquest is proving to be. There was last year's hair-raising report by the NSW State Ombudsman – the Ombudsman's third on LRCs – as well as reports of the NSW Guardianship Tribunal's investigation of the Millthorpe LRC. People With Disability Australia, which is funded to advocate for residents of LRCs, has for years been urging something be done.
It's clear what needs to be done.
We need law reform for occupancy agreements between marginal renters, such as boarders in LRCs, and their landlords. These occupancy agreements should have to comply with some basic occupancy principles, and there should be provision for standard terms to be made for specific types of agreement by regulation. LRC occupancy agreements should be the first candidate for a set of standard terms.
We need a new system of registration and accreditation for all residential services, including licensed boarding houses, with different standards for different types of providers. This system would need an independent registrar to monitor and enforce standards, because ADHC is patently not up to the job. (On a positive note, the registrar might also be a handy one-stop-shop for boarding house operators in their dealings with government.)
And finally, we need a plan for the orderly closure of LRCs, and the rehousing of their residents in social housing with funded support services attached. This subsector of substandard housing for people with disability only, and substandard 'care' provided for profit, has no place in the future of our housing system.

[UPDATE – 31 May 2012. The coroner has made findings - see this post for our review.]