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‘How well does he swim?’: Threatening anonymous letter sent to family of man in disability support

A disturbing letter threatening the life of a man living in South Australian government disability accommodation failed to result in a meaningful investigation, the disability royal commission has heard. 

The letter included threats to kill or seriously injure the man, who has been given the pseudonym Mitchell, after a manager at his facility was removed when concerns were raised by the family.

It was received in March 2018 by his aunt and uncle, who gave evidence on Monday to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability under the pseudonyms James and Victoria.

“As you would imagine, the staff involved are angry and pissed off which now puts your nephew at risk,” the letter, seen by SBS News, read. 

The letter also said a number of staff had signed a petition calling for the manager to remain in the role. 

It went on to list a number of ways Mitchell could be harmed under the guise of an accident.

“Food … poison; medication … wrong; shampoo … what’s in the bottle, acid?; bruises … how did that happen; how well does he swim?; going through the windscreen … seatbelt unclipped,” it continued. 

“This little piglet is going to be abused with cruelty and violence … regularly and repeatedly.”

Upon receiving the letter, James told SBS News they put it in a plastic bag and immediately contacted the state’s Department of Human Services and the Office of the Public Advocate before taking it to police the following day. 

“We were horrified by the contents and very concerned for the safety of Mitchell,” he said. 

But police said they “didn’t see [the letter] as a direct threat” and believed it was an internal matter for the department, the hearing was told. 

During a meeting with South Australia’s Principal Community Visitor in October 2018, however, it was revealed the department “did not investigate nor interview staff regarding the threatening letter”.

The South Australian Ombudsman later found the letter was not properly investigated, the hearing heard. 

The Department of Human Services did eventually reopen an investigation, but no evidence was found to identify the letter’s author.

Victoria and James said they had previously raised concerns with the facility regarding Mitchell’s care. In one instance of concern prior to the letter, James said his nephew was taken to a topless bar without the family’s consent.

“[The letter] was just proof positive of something that we knew was happening anyway,” James said. “And to an extent, we thought we’ve now at least got some tangible evidence which demonstrates that this is not just the family being over-reactive. This is evidence that there is a malignant culture.” 

Following the letter, measures were put in place to ensure the safety of Mitchell, including limiting his contact with staff to a core team. James said he and Victoria remained vigilant, visiting multiple times a week. 

But with the author of the letter still unidentified, Victoria told the hearing she remained concerned they could harm other people with disability. 

“We were continuously frustrated, that even though we were told the investigation unit had investigated and we needed to move on, that just wasn’t possible,” Victoria said. 

“We weren’t moving on, regardless of whether we say these people are not around Mitchell, they might be around other people.”

James said as far as he is aware, the author of the letter could still be working with vulnerable people.

Meanwhile, Mitchell is still in the care of government supported accommodation and “eager to move on with his life”, James said, as the family works to transfer him to a different service provider.

“Certainly, from our perspective, the future is much more positive than the past,” he said.

The commission’s 14th public hearing into preventing and responding to violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation in South Australian disability services will continue throughout the week.

With AAP

A free national legal service has been established to assist people to share their story with the commission. The service, called Your Story Disability Legal Support, is independent of the inquiry and funded by Legal Aid. 

Counselling and support services can also be found on the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability website.

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