5 Dec 2022

Allegations of neglect in home for disabled sparks urgent call for answers by ministry

2:59 pm on 5 December 2022

By Natalie Akoorie, Open Justice reporter of NZ Herald

Disabled woman Anna Mills, 38, was removed from an IDEA Services residential care home after she was found "critically unwell" by her sister.

Disabled woman Anna Mills, 38, was removed from an IDEA Services residential care home after she was found "critically unwell" by her sister. Photo: NZ Herald / Mike Scott

Allegations of neglect in a home for the disabled involving a "critically unwell" woman blindsided Whaikaha, the Ministry of Disabled People, which is now seeking an explanation.

And deputy chief executive of operational design and delivery, Amanda Bleckmann, confirmed the ministry is considering an investigation into the care of Anna Mills by IDEA Services, after the allegations were revealed by the Herald last week.

Anna, 38, was found severely underweight, malnourished and dehydrated at an IDEA Services residential care home in Gisborne six months ago, her sister Sarah-Jane Mills says.

Mills claimed her sister was 35kg and not eating, unable to sit up, and lying in her own urine and faeces.

Her concerns turned to alarm when Anna told her on the phone she was going to be with their mother who died 17 years ago with the same progressive muscle-wasting condition Anna was born with - myotonic dystrophy.

Mills took over care of Anna and eventually removed her from the service, relocating her to Mills' home in Pirongia, near Hamilton.

Anna has since put on 18kg, is no longer incontinent and can toilet herself, is no longer having trouble swallowing and can eat whole food, is not taking anti-depressants anymore, and is happy.

"I was crying for help and nobody would even come and check on me," Anna told NZME.

Mills has now complained to the Health and Disability Commissioner (HDC), the Human Rights Commission and the Chief Ombudsman.

IDEA Services said it could not respond to the allegations while the case was before the HDC.

"We cannot comment about an individual case, but work with all relevant agencies involved [including HDC] to support the process," the spokesperson said.

Bleckmann said Whaikaha took the allegations "extremely seriously".

"We were very concerned to learn of these allegations regarding Anna's care through the media," she said.

"Whaikaha expects disability providers to report any instances or allegations of neglect to us. In this case, we did not receive a notification from IDEA Services, and we are following this up.

"We are urgently seeking more information from IDEA Services to understand what has happened here.

"We are working through next steps on the best way to investigate and to establish whether these issues extend beyond this situation."

Whaikaha was liaising with the HDC and the Human Rights Commission.

Bleckmann said the ministry, launched in July, appreciated the situation "must be very distressing for Anna and her whānau".

"Our highest priority is the safety and wellbeing of disabled people. They should receive the support they need in a way that respects their rights, dignity and autonomy."

Bleckmann said Whaikaha was also concerned with "issues a number of families have raised with us in relation to IDEA Services".

"We have raised these matters with IDEA Services at the highest levels."

Mills did not blame caregivers and said when she tried to question managers about Anna's condition in the weeks before she went to Anna's aid, her concerns were downplayed.

In the past the family had been wary of making complaints because they were scared of being asked to remove Anna from care, she said.

Whaikaha said a strong complaints process was essential to providing services that were safe, responsive, and where providers could respond to problems swiftly.

"Under the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights, consumers have a right to complain and health and disability services providers must facilitate the fair, simple, speedy, and efficient resolution of complaints.

"We expect a strong complaints process from IDEA Services. We expect to see services delivered to people in their care in a safe and appropriately managed way."

Bleckmann said annual discussions were currently underway with IDEA Services over its contract.

IDEA Services, a subsidiary of IHC, received $315 million in government funding for the financial year to June 2022.

"We have raised a number of issues with IDEA Services as part of those contractual discussions, including their complaints processes, and their bathing policy," Bleckmann said.

In September last year IDEA Services removed the taps from baths in its homes after it was fined following two drownings.

Asked whether Whaikaha has the power to revoke IDEA Services' funding, Bleckmann said any change in funding levels needed to be managed to "avoid undesirable impacts on those receiving services".

An IDEA Services spokesperson said the charity had a clear and comprehensive complaints process and it welcomed feedback and discussions about services.

"Where concerns are raised we move swiftly to investigate, respond to families and individuals, continue to have open discussions and inform our funder [Whaikaha] as part of that process."

A spokesperson for the Office of the Ombudsman confirmed it had received a complaint in the case of Anna and said all complaints are assessed for jurisdiction.

"Because the Chief Ombudsman is required by law to carry out his inquiries in secret, we are unable to comment further."

* This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.