Laura and Jim and their daughter Samantha came to speak with the Commissioner about Samantha’s experience when she was placed in a psychiatric institution at the age of 17.
In the 2000s, Samantha was experiencing a severe period of mental ill health, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, exacerbated by an eating disorder, and her parents believed that she was a threat to herself. Samantha was scheduled and taken to a state-government run adult psychiatric unit in New South Wales.
‘There were no available beds in the adolescent unit so they sent me there.’
Initially, Samantha was in a locked ward for acute care but her condition improved and she was transferred to an open ward within the adult facility. The ward included both men and women of all ages with no separation of genders. Patients could move around the unit freely. There was little supervision and Samantha was ‘left to my own devices’.
On a visit to the unit, Laura and Jim were dismayed to find Samantha fearful of one of the other patients.
‘I remember Samantha coming to us when we went to the hospital saying, “Mum, I’m really frightened. There’s this man who thinks I’m his wife and keeps calling me his ‘wifey’”.’
Laura reported Samantha’s fear to the nurse in charge and asked him to make sure the patient was kept away from Samantha.
‘I remember him patting me on the back and saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll look after her.”’
Laura also told another nurse about Samantha’s concerns.
The man was about 40 years older than Samantha and significantly mentally unwell with no expectation of release from the facility. Samantha often rang her parents to tell them of her constant fear. One day the man ‘viciously assaulted’ her.
Samantha didn’t feel able to tell the unit staff, nurses or her parents. It wasn’t until she had been released into the care of a psychiatrist that she felt able to disclose the sexual abuse.
‘I trusted her [and] … I knew that I was already slipping, going back into self-harming behaviours and I didn’t want to end up back in the same place again.’
The psychiatrist told her parents about the abuse and they made a report to the hospital authorities. Samantha now feels that she was coerced into not taking the matter further.
‘I was told at one point that I could report the incident to the police if I wanted to but if I did the man that did the assault, he would just end up where he already was … I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot of choice in the matter … I felt like it was kind of, “Well you could report it, but he’ll just end up where he already is, so what’s the point?”’
The abuse took a terrible toll on Samantha’s health, both physical and mental.
‘My condition after that got a whole lot worse. I ended up being on the feeding tube continuously for over two years and I had a serious suicide attempt. I tried lots of times when I was in hospital to kill myself after that and completely stopped eating … After [the abuse] everything stopped.’
Some years later, Samantha decided that she wanted the hospital held to account.
‘I decided not to pursue the victims [of crime] compensation but to try and to do a medical negligence claim … We got a copy of the incident report for the assault through freedom of information and it listed all the ways in which the hospital didn’t protect me, procedures they didn’t have in place, things they didn’t do.’
The documents revealed that the hospital had, after receiving Samantha’s complaint, conducted a review of their practices around the prevention of child sexual abuse. The report indicated that the hospital had no protocols or systems in place to protect young patients. Laura told the Commissioner that when she realised this, she was shocked.
‘The thing that makes me really, really cranky about this is that the policy requirement to have a sexual assault protocol was from 1994 … [Samantha’s abuse] was actually quite a number of years later but they still didn’t have that in place … They’ve been criminally negligent in that they haven’t implemented a mandatory policy.’
Laura said that the issue of housing adolescents in adult facilities remains current.
‘It’s still really difficult … particularly between the ages of 16-18. It’s like there’s this hole in the system that they haven’t dealt with … If you went into the ED [emergency department] under 16 you got transferred straight to adolescent mental health. But if you’re between 16 and 18… it’s a black hole.’
Samantha hasn’t been able to move on with her life.
‘I feel like I’m completely stunted. I’ve been at uni for … years now trying to get through it. I still live at home … I’m too scared to go out on my own. I don’t work. The way I feel about myself after that has just delayed everything in my life.’
Her parents’ marriage has also suffered. Laura told the Commissioner that she shut her ‘emotions off so that I could deal with what was going on’ and that Jim ‘hasn’t been the same since’.
‘We put her in there to keep her safe … As a parent you’re putting them in there to help – you think you’re helping and when something like this happens it just, it kills you. Particularly when we told them.’
The family didn’t proceed with the negligence claim against the hospital after a forensic psychiatrist ‘couldn’t say’ that the assault had been specifically detrimental to Samantha’s mental health. Samantha had been receiving treatment since her early teens and the lawyers felt they wouldn’t be able to prove ‘causation’ in regards to the abuse, the hospital’s negligence and Samantha’s psychological state.
Jim expressed his frustration. ‘I just think the hospital should have admitted negligence ... to not be able to take the case to court because it [the abuse] hasn’t made her worse [is terrible].’
Samantha would like an apology from the hospital in recognition of the fact that ‘the supervision was not adequate by any means – for my safety and for my health’.
‘I never received an apology … I received no letter from the hospital saying “We’re sorry this happened to you” … My parents just wanted to keep me safe and keep me alive and the system was what kept me alive but at the same time it hurt me as well. They did what they needed to do to keep me alive … but the system failed them as much as it failed me.’