IT was October 2013 when Coalition state government plans to close the Stockton Centre were first revealed by the Newcastle Herald.
Although the plan to shut the Hunter’s three large disability care centres – Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra, at Morisset – is not formally part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it is intrinsically linked with the NDIS because of decisions by the NSW government to privatise its disability agency as part of the NDIS changeover.
This linkage has meant that anyone questioning the closures is often labelled as being opposed to the rights of the disabled. Stockton staff holding protests about the closure have been accused of putting their jobs before the welfare of the residents. Family members doubting the wisdom of the group home move have been told they are not giving their relative a chance to live the improved life the government insists is awaiting them in their new group home.
But now, 3½ years into the closure process, the deaths of two former Stockton residents, and the serious illness of a third – all moved recently into the one group home in suburban Stockton – appear to be crystalising the fears of the critics who say the government has under-estimated the complexity of the situation.
There is no doubt that some Stockton residents are able to live in the sort of group home being built for them by government contractors. But staff and others with real experience of the hundreds of people who still call the Stockton Centre home say there are a substantial number whose high-level medical and behavioural needs are entirely unsuited to the sort of suburban integration that the government has as the goal for all.
Even if the group home model can work, the situation at the Douglas Street home appears – on the evidence available – to show real problems with the sort of care being offered to the former Stockton Centre residents.
Having previously been assured that the level of care was “meeting the needs of residents”, MPs Kate Washington and Tim Crakanthorp have every reason to call for an urgent review of the level of care in the post-Stockton group homes.
For its part, the government must do more than simply follow its “standard practice” of referring the two deaths to the Ombudsman. It must put human lives ahead of political dogma, and take real note of the toll that its policies appear to be taking.