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Alleged sexual abuse of aged care home resident kept under wraps for years

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An allegation of sexual abuse of a resident by a former worker in a Queensland government-run home was not reported to police for five years, despite a colleague reporting it to management.

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The employee at Eventide Rockhampton in central Queensland was allegedly witnessed abusing the resident but kept working there for several years until he was caught committing a sexual offence against another resident.

On February 5 this year, health officials told Trevor Lennox they had received an allegation that his wife Nancy, who is a resident at Eventide and has an acquired brain injury, was sexually abused in 2016.

“I was in total disbelief,” Mr Lennox said.

“[Nancy has] a larger extended family and they’re just totally disgusted.”

At the time, the alleged incident was reported to Eventide management by another staff member, a health department source told the ABC on condition of anonymity.

Her alleged abuser was sacked two years later after he sexually targeted another resident with a mental impairment.

That led to him receiving an 18-month suspended jail sentence in the Rockhampton District Court in October 2019 for “wilful and unlawful exposure of a person with an impairment of the mind to an indecent act [as a] guardian/carer”.

However, the alleged abuse of Ms Lennox was only reported to police and the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission in recent weeks.

It was prompted by the alleged witness giving a fresh account to executives at Central Queensland Hospital and Health Service (CQHHS), which oversees Eventide.

Mr Lennox said the executives told him they had known nothing of the allegations and said there had to be an investigation into the aged care home’s response.

“It was first reported five years ago and I only found out about a fortnight ago — so what’s happened in between?”

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath told the ABC there would be an “internal investigation to find out why there [were] any delays in this matter coming forward”.

“Any claim of abuse is concerning,” she said.

“If there’s someone to be held to account, if this [abuse] has occurred, then someone definitely needs to face the courts.

“And we also need to look at processes, about why this didn’t come to light earlier.”

Mr Lennox said he was disturbed that, if the allegations were true, his wife would have known what was happening to her because she “absorbs all information [but] she cannot tell me anything”.

Dr Catherine Barrett, an academic expert on elder abuse, said a five-year delay in reporting alleged sexual abuse was “absolutely appalling” and a potential breach of the aged care home’s legal responsibilities.

“Why was it not reported for five years? Who gave permission to say that this should not be reported,” Dr Barrett said.

She said if any allegations were raised, precautions needed to be taken until the matter was fully investigated.

“If the alleged perpetrator was a staff member, how was that resident’s safety secured so that she was not sexually assaulted repeatedly?” Dr Barrett said.

“If somebody is sexually assaulting one resident, are they sexually assaulting other residents as well? How was the safety of other residents secured?”

The case has emerged just days before the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety is expected to hand down its findings.

Over the past decade, the rate of alleged sex abuse in Australian aged care homes has almost tripled, according to figures from the Commonwealth health department.

In 2019-20, there were 851 alleged or suspected unlawful sexual contacts in Australian aged care homes, or 3.48 per 1,000 people in care, up from 1.19 in 2009-10.

“It could be that people are getting better at reporting, but my gut says we have a problem with increased sexual assault happening in residential aged care,” Dr Barrett said.

“I think that is occurring because of increased rates of cognitively impaired residents in residential aged care homes, and also because we are not holding perpetrators to account.

“What we know from the research is that there is a culture of under-reporting, and defensiveness when sexual assault is reported.”

Ms D’Ath said it was “critical” to examine any mishandling of the matter.

“We’ve always got to constantly be reviewing our processes and looking at how we can improve,” she said.

“But with an allegation as serious as this, of course I need to await the outcome of that investigation by police and internally.”

A spokeswoman for CQHSS said it had “reported the alleged sexual assault within 24 hours of receiving it, as required by the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission”.

“All allegations relating to this matter are subject to investigation and therefore, it is not appropriate to comment,” she said.

Mr Lennox said he and his family were grateful to the whistle-blower at the aged care home for coming forward.

He asked that police and the aged care regulator “give it urgent attention please, for the family’s sake”.

A Queensland Police Service spokeswoman said detectives in the Rockhampton Criminal Investigation Branch were investigating a report of “sexual assault involving a resident of a Rockhampton aged care home”.

“Due to the nature of the complaint and the early stage of the investigation. there is no further information available at this time,” she said.

Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner Janet Anderson told the ABC in a statement the regulator had “recently received a compulsory report from Eventide Home Rockhampton and has sought additional information from [CQHHS] about this report”.

“The Commission is continuing to follow up with the service,” she said.

“Should the Commission have ongoing concerns about care and services at Eventide Home Rockhampton, the Commission may consider regulatory action.”

Ms Anderson said from April under the Federal Government’s serious incident response scheme, aged care operators would have to report a “broader range of incidents to the Commission, including neglect, psychological and emotional abuse, and inappropriate use of physical or chemical restraint” as well as follow-up actions.

– ABC / Josh Robertson

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