ADJOURNMENT - Esther House

ADJOURNMENT - Esther House Main Image

07 February 2023

Sexual assault allegations, reports of gay conversion therapy, forcible restraint and unqualified pharmaceutical treatment providers are very unfortunately just a few examples of experiences reported by survivors of Esther House. Esther House was an unregulated private residential facility that until recently was operating in Perth, Western Australia.

Over the duration of its operations, the foundation of Esther House promoted itself as providing mental health and alcohol and other drug treatment services, as well as a range of other in-demand general support services. Esther House received in 2019, under the Morrison government, some $4 million as part of an agreement within the Australian government's Community Health and Hospitals Program. The grant was announced in person by then Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to the facility.

Fortunately, the facility has now closed. In December of 2022, the WA government tabled a report in the state parliament from a parliamentary committee inquiry into the Esther Foundation. The inquiry provided a real opportunity for survivors of this unregulated private health facility to be heard. These survivors were often young and vulnerable at the time of entering this residential facility. Some of those survivors have shared their experiences with me, and I say thank you. I say thank you to the survivors who gave their evidence to the parliamentary committee. I want to send a message to all of those who don't yet feel safe enough to speak out. I hear you and I, too, ask questions as to how this could have been allowed to happen and what we can do to ensure this doesn't happen again.

I'm pleased and relieved to know that the McGowan government has moved on one of the recommendations of the report, and that is to criminalise practices that seek to change or suppress an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity. There is no evidence that sexual orientation or gender identity can be changed. These practices are more than ineffective; they are simply extremely harmful. I have sat and listened to the recollections of a number of survivors and I know that these practices can amount to torture and can cause long-term mental health issues, even suicide.

The work must continue to ensure that vulnerable people can access the help they need without the risk of unprofessional, unregulated and/or unqualified operators causing them further harm. The report's findings and recommendations point to state government acts and regulations that need review. We at a federal level, though, must also ensure that national frameworks and quality standards are met by private rehabilitation service providers, whether they receive public funding or not. I would like us to keep in mind that, even without direct government funding, facilities like Esther House can and do receive referrals from government agencies. They receive referrals from judges and magistrates. They receive referrals from distressed parents and even individual members of the public, and they receive self-referrals from people in need. They receive in-kind support, small grants and public endorsement from existing state and federal governments, all while avoiding and excluding themselves from the regulatory framework that normally accompanies funding agreements.

It stands to reason that the public should feel confident when they access a rehabilitation service offering mental health support that they will be in a safe and supported environment, with qualified staff and a clear complaints mechanism should any issue arise. It's reasonable to expect that services are subject to systems of monitoring, reporting, minimum standards and licensing—licensing that includes verifiable statistics and best practice methods, with the oversight of a regulating body and a framework. In short, this is what we should expect from any treatment service such as a hospital.

The report of the state parliamentary inquiry makes the important and key distinction between a positive regulatory system, which includes a barrier to entry where specific targets and quality standards need to be met, versus this case where—at best, or in part, but not very much—there was a negative regulatory scheme in place, which focused on dealing with noncompliance of established standards after complaints were made. Even so, very few of those standards were actually upheld in practice or had any oversight within that institution. It was not until complaints were made that caused the institution to be closed that anyone saw any kind of protection. I was horrified to learn that neither the Morrison government's grant agreement nor the subsequent amendment made to the original agreement sought to embed sector-specific quality requirements as part of the initial grants funding requirements.

I'm sad to say that the case of Esther House is not an isolated one. Across the country, there have been other controversies surrounding faith based organisations in particular —amongst others, but particularly faith based organisations—seeking to assist vulnerable people but actually perpetuating abuse against them, because they do not have governance and oversight that meets quality frameworks and standards. The inquiry noted in its report similar complaints directed at, for example, Mercy Ministries and Healing House.

The work must continue to ensure that vulnerable people can access the help they need without the risk of unprofessional, unregulated and/or unqualified operators causing them further harm. The report's findings and recommendations point to state government acts, and we must ensure at a national level that agencies and organisations like Esther House do not continue to receive government referrals and government funding in the future. In the words of one survivor who shared their horrifying lived experience with me: 'Esther hurt me, broke me down and made me feel like less of a person, or even a being. Every day with myself is a major challenge, and it's exhausting.'

This cannot be allowed to continue to happen. As the report states, the complexity of running a trauma recovery program should have demanded strong governance structures. Where such programs are allowed to exist without them, we're left with an organisation that has the potential to cause far more harm than good and leads us to a place where we have individuals who require more future ongoing mental health support to aid their recovery.