NDIS provider pursued financial growth over client safety, disability inquiry finds

April 5, 2023

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Royal commission also criticises federal disability watchdog for its handling of complaints centred on provider Afford

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A non-profit national disability insurance provider pursued a “single-minded” financial growth strategy at the expense of the safety of its clients, dished out “inappropriate” bonuses to staff and spent “large sums” on alcohol, the disability royal commission has found.

In a new report released on Tuesday, the commission also criticised the federal disability watchdog – which regulates national disability insurance scheme (NDIS) providers – for its handling of complaints centred on the NDIS provider Afford.

The royal commission held hearings last year investigating an Afford day program in western Sydney, with evidence two young men with disability abused by an Afford carer never received a formal apology or compensation from the provider.

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In its report issued on Tuesday finalising its investigation of the case, the disability royal commission made 29 adverse findings, criticising Afford’s board and executive and the organisation’s policies and procedures as well as outlining specific failings in the handling of the abuse case.

It said that from around 2015 to at least March 2021, Afford’s board and executive management had pursued a strategy of growth.

The report said that Afford’s revenue was mainly derived from the NDIS, and from 2014-15 to 2020-21 its revenue tripled to $145.6m. Over the same period, Afford’s clients also grew from 425 to 6,281.

The commission said the way the growth strategy was pursued contributed to a “toxic” organisational culture that “focused on growth and financial matters at the expense of the safety and quality of client services; and inhibited staff from raising concerns or providing feedback about how Afford was operating”.

The commission was critical of spending on bonuses for staff which it said resulted in a culture of “box-ticking” and also criticised so-called “buzz nights”, social events for staff held at the Afford headquarters in which “large sums” were spent on alcohol. The report said Afford board minutes from 2021 suggested “[e]ntertainment expenditure is akin to the banking sector in the 1980s, doesn’t pass the ‘pub test’ and needs to be remodelled”.

Both practices have been discontinued.

The report was critical of the former Afford chief executive Steven Herald. “The evidence reveals a single-minded appetite for growth and an organisation dominated by a CEO, Mr Herald, whose personality and outlook were fundamentally unsuited to an organisation providing disability support services using public money,” it said.

“The evidence also reveals how the board and the organisational structure of Afford were ill-equipped to control the culture and processes implemented by Mr Herald.

“The result was an organisation that was incapable of providing adequate safeguards to prevent incidents such as the abuse …”

The commission said Herald was notified of potential adverse findings. He was legally represented, but did not participate or seek leave to appear at a hearing last year.

Many of the findings were focused on the abuse of Afford NDIS participants at the hands of one of its carers. The inquiry was told the carer was jailed for three years over the abuse.

The royal commission found Afford failed to apologise in writing to the victims or their families and “did not meaningfully engage with them to discuss any form of redress”.

It also failed to investigate whether any further abuse occurred, and took no “timely steps” to safeguard against further abuse in the future.

Afford also failed properly inform the NDIS commission of “the nature and extent of the abuse, how it had occurred and the steps being taken by Afford to address the risk of abuse and the interests of affected clients and their families”, the report said.

But the NDIS watchdog was also criticised for its “uncritical acceptance” of the findings of an external report commissioned by Afford into the case.

“The NDIS commission’s concluding assessment that Afford’s response to the abuse was appropriate was plainly wrong,” the royal commission report said.

The report also noted a separate case, which was still before the courts, in which a 20-year-old autistic woman died in a bathtub at an Afford group home in May 2019.

In a statement issued last month after it was provided with an advance copy of Tuesday’s report, Afford, known as the Australian Foundation for Disability, said it took full responsibility and accountability for the failings identified by the royal commission between 2015 and 2019.

“The Afford of today is uncompromising in our commitment to safeguarding our clients and ensuring rights-led client choices and practice.”

“We take full responsibility and accountability for this,” the statement said. “We are sorry for those failings and have expressed this personally to the clients and families we know were impacted.”

They said “transformation has been under way at Afford since the commencement of Jo Toohey as CEO in November 2021 and is continuing”.

The commission continues.

(Source: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2023/mar/21/ndis-provider-pursued-financial-growth-over-client-safety-disability-inquiry-finds)