In Today’s analysis, we’re delving into another component of monitoring and safeguarding covered in Volume 11, Independent oversight and complaint mechanisms, of the Disability Royal Commission (DRC) final report. Chapter 4 explores the current and potential roles of Community Visitor Schemes (CVS) (sometimes known as ‘Official Visitors’, ‘Official Community Visitors’, or ‘Official Visitors Disability). Community visitors are appointed individuals who independently monitor services and facilities people with disability use, through arranged or unexpected visits. They can investigate, listen to people with disability, and will sometimes link them with independent advocacy or supported decision making processes. The existing CVS were designed and established prior to the introduction of the NDIS and vary in their coverage and operation across the states and territories in which they are established – with no CVS existing in the jurisdictions of Western Australia or Tasmania.
We’ve heard from disability advocates over the years (prior to and throughout the introduction of the NDIS) that safeguarding frameworks, overseeing services delivered to people with disability both under and outside of the NDIS, have frequently failed to adequately monitor the safety and quality of supports. This has been especially so in the segregated settings in which many people with disability live and work, and for situations where one provider is delivering all supports. Disability advocates have also described the huge influence and improvements they perceive in adherence to rights, safety and quality of supports when external “eyes and ears” can access such settings, yet frequently face a culture of gatekeeping and resistance to the scrutiny of independent advocates or other outsiders. (See these themes explored in Rights, Safety, Quality, December 2022).
With their purpose to monitor the human rights of people with disability receiving services, CVS can overcome these barriers (often facing disability advocates) reaching into service settings through legislated functions and powers, including:
- right of entry to undertake announced and unannounced visits to premises;
- authority to confer with residents in private and with staff;
- authority to view documentation relation to services and support with the facilities; and
- ability to refer matters/complaints to external agencies.
Despite these common elements, there are considerable inconsistencies in how CVS operate across jurisdictions, including who can be appointed as a community visitor and whether the position is paid or voluntary, whether the schemes cover services for other groups beyond people with disability (e.g. youth and adult detention facilities, children and young people living in out-of-home care) and whether community visitors can visit services delivered by NDIS providers. For instance, South Australian law allows their CVS to visit NDIS participants who are under the guardianship of the Public Advocate but ceased visiting non-government disability service providers on the basis that the Federal NDIS Act “covers the field” regarding quality and safeguards and therefore invalidates that legislative power at the state level. Whereas in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, community visitors are empowered to visit a range of services/premises where people receive NDIS supports, without any issues of constitutional inconsistency being raised.
The Quality and Safety Discussion Paper (that DANA published during our NDIS Review engagement work earlier this year) notes the potential of CVS to better build natural safeguards for NDIS participants, with reform to current community visitor programs “to allow community visitors to visit any site where NDIS-funded services are provided and promote greater national consistency in legislative settings, approaches and coverage across jurisdictions.”
The DRC summarises the findings of several key reports that CVS are a needed and valuable mechanism for oversight (despite room for improvement, including more resourcing, greater clarity as to how they should interact with the NDIS and increased frequency of unannounced visits):
- Community Visitors Schemes Review (by WestwoodSpice, commissioned by DSS in 2018)
- Safeguarding Task Force Report (commissioned by SA Minister for Human Services in 2020)
- Roberston Review (independent review commissioned by the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commissioner in 2020)
- Joint Standing Committee Report on the NDIS Commission (November 2021)
(These findings are broadly consistent with themes we’ve heard from advocates during consultations since 2020 – we discuss advocacy sector perspectives further below.)
The DRC considers a range of evidence, suggestions, and proposals for better integrating and extending the operation of CVS in the NDIS context, including arguments that the current patchwork should be replaced with a national CVS operated by the NDIS Commission. Ultimately the DRC concludes that this option would not be appropriate, citing the:
- significant numbers of people with disability (and other people at risk in other service settings) not being NDIS participants;
- nexus between community visitors and other state-based service types;
- potential compromises to the independence of the community visitor role if operated from the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission (due to its existing responsibility to regulate NDIS providers);
(As DANA asserted earlier this year in this Submission to the NDIS Review, the multiple functions currently residing in the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission has been problematic in relation to integrity, independence and effectiveness.)
DRC recommendations for integration and consistency across jurisdictions
So rather than a national scheme, the DRC concludes that it would be best for state and territory based CVS to play a role in monitoring service providers operating in the jurisdictions where people with disability live and receive the supports (with coverage of these schemes not being determined by whether or not the person being visited is an NDIS participant or how those supports are funded). However, the DRC does recognise the need for achieving much greater consistency and enabling improved information sharing between CVS, the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and the NDIA.
In Recommendation 11.12, the DRC calls on state and territory governments to:
- urgently implement CVS for people with disability (in Western Australia and Tasmania;
- ensure CVS are resourced sufficiently to conduct frequent visits to individuals experiencing elevated risk of abuse or harm; and
- agree to making CVS nationally consistent as to the scope of people and places that can be visited, their powers to visit, inspect and provide information, monitoring standards and data, and mechanisms for identifying people with disability who may be at increased risk of violence, abuse, neglect or exploitation.
- ensure all CVS legislation enables relevant information to be shared with the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and the NDIA.
In Recommendation 11.13, the DRC calls for the Australian government to:
- amend the NDIS Act and the NDIS Quality and Safeguarding Framework to formally recognise CVS as a safeguard and provide for information sharing between the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and CVS.
- enter into a national agreement with states and territories to share relevant information between the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission and CVS to exercise their respective functions and develop common standards for guiding the work of CVS.
Community visitors and independent disability advocacy
In various consultations about safeguarding the rights of people with disability, advocates have generally considered CVS as a valuable external oversight and endorsed their introduction, expansion or strengthening. Some have questioned their effectiveness in prompting long-term positive changes to the conduct of providers and others report varied experiences of CVS referring people to independent advocacy organisations or not receiving any referrals. (See comments from advocates in Rights, Safety, Quality).
DANA supports all governments taking swift action on these DRC recommendations, though the pace of reform needs to allow for the input and advice of people with disability and their advocates and representative organisations. We hope there will be strong links formed and maintained by CVS with the advocacy sector so they can refer people with disability to independent advocacy organisations for ongoing support, and also be guided by the experiences and insights of advocacy organisations in identifying unsafe, abusive or neglectful environments that should be prioritised for visiting.
As with our analysis of the adult safeguarding recommendations, the need for increased funding of and better access to independent advocacy hovers in the background of this topic. Like community visitors, independent advocates can be part of the effective safeguarding of people who are at particular risk of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, if sufficiently resourced to proactively reach and connect with them. However, advocacy organisations face a culture of “closedness” and gatekeeping by service providers and are not currently empowered with the right of entry to premises like group homes, ADEs or day programs that are available to CVS through current laws or the reforms proposed by the DRC. As we argued in our Submission on Independent Disability Advocacy, there is potential for this to change with legislative amendments or as we’ve been exploring lately, possibilities for expanding the use of existing (and/or reformed) CVS structures to grant disability advocates the ability to visit disability services to ensure people with disability who are isolated, and not aware of their rights or able to report harms or mistreatment can be assisted by an independent advocate to have their voices heard and their human rights safeguarded.