SECRECY surrounding the movement of people from the Stockton, Kanangra and Tomaree disability centres into group homes is adding to the stress of the situation, families and staff members say.
As the Newcastle Herald reported on Saturday, more than 300 people - many of them with profound and complex disabilities - are being moved into some 69 group homes, most of them in the Hunter.
Many, if not a majority, of the residents are under the care of the NSW Public Guardian, meaning decisions on these people can be made between the two bureaucracies.
Lists of group home residents drawn up by the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) show that decisions have been made about housing most - if not all - of the residents.
The lists have been available to staff for at least two months, to enable them to fill in group home nomination forms saying which clients they might like to work with once their centre closes.
But staff say they have also been told, under threat of disciplinary procedure, that they are not allowed to tell family members which other residents their relative will be living with.
The lists show most houses having five residents, with a few having four or three.
In a recent letter to FACS, the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association said the department had "determined which client groups will be transitioned into which NGO (non-government organisation) homes" and that the public guardian's office was "aware of all the relevant information'.
"It appears to members that those people living here with family who are their guardians have not been afforded the same privilege, leaving them in the dark and causing anxiety and stress among staff, who have over time built up a mutual trust with these families," the letter said.
"As such, members feel they are being actively encouraged to lie, with threats to their employment if they answer a direct question about the [moving] plans.
"This is also causing anxiety among clients, as they are very attuned to staff anxiety levels. Members feel there is an increased risk to both their psychological and physical health."
Wendy Cuneo, whose 39-year-old son David lives at the Stockton Centre, and who is the vice-president and publicist for the Stockton Hospital Welfare Association, said that while the government had promised full choice and consultation from the start, the reality was the opposite.
Mrs Cuneo said she and her husband Clem had asked repeatedly who would be living with David when he moved, but that they had been told by FACS in writing that the information they wanted could not be revealed because of privacy concerns.
"I am unable to give you a full list of the other people's names that will be living at [the home] as clients' information is confidential," FACS told Mrs Cuneo last week.
"Although our wish is still that Stockton stay open, it seems we have to accept David moving into a group home," Mrs Cuneo said.
"We have no problems with Home4Life, which is building the house, but it was only March that they told us which organisation would be running the house.
"They wanted us to sign contracts for David to go into that house even before we were told a group called The Disability Trust was the Supported Independent Living provider for the house, and now they want us to sign it but won't tell us who he is living with.
"They are saying that we will meet with The Disability Trust and that their highest priority is for David to receive the supports he needs in a 'smooth and safe' move out of Stockton.
"That's not consultation. It's telling you some of what is happening after they've done it without telling you, and then saying that one of the really important things - who David lives with - is none of our business.
"And they wonder why families are worried and staff are upset?"
Controversy has also arisen over the movement of some Stockton residents to different units to allow them to live with the people they will be with in their group homes.
FACS says grouping the residents was a result of "the lessons learned in the first stage" of the closure plan. It was a way of identifying "additional needs" in relation to resources and staff training, while testing the "compatibility" of residents to "help ensure they are familiar with each other when the move happens".
But Mrs Cuneo and a number of staff have said that the practice has been stressful for the residents because they did not know why they were being moved, and why they couldn't go back to their "home" unit.
Staff have also questioned whether the moves were as much about papering over nursing shortages as they were about preparing the clients for life outside the centre.
Shadow minister for the Hunter, Kate Washington, said the new Disability Services Minister, Gareth Ward, needed to listen those directly involved if he wanted to fix the problems created under former ministers John Ajaka and Ray Williams.
"The residents' families are deeply concerned for the safety and welfare of their loved ones and are acutely aware of the deaths of former residents who were moved to settings with inadequate levels of care," Ms Washington said.
"Very few of the commitments given by previous ministers have been kept. Instead, for many families and residents, the bungled process has been confusing and distressing. Poor decisions made by the department need to be acknowledged and addressed."
Responding, Mr Ward said: "I look forward to visiting the Hunter residences [Stockton, Kanangra, Tomaree] in the near future and hearing directly from residents, their families and carers.
"FACS, Home4Life and the new service providers are working with clients and their families on the detailed plans for their transition to their new home. This planning process will commence well in advance of each individual move and their move will be managed sensitively every step of the way.
"I would caution the shadow minister on playing politics with people with disability and would welcome the opportunity to work with her and other local MPs to ensure the best possible outcomes for residents."