A LONG-SERVING former board president has called for an urgent investigation into social welfare agency Community Connections, saying she holds fears for the wellbeing of its staff and clients.
Lyneve Whiting, who has spent nearly three years trying to have her concerns addressed by state and federal departments, said other past board members and staff were also worried about the governance of the Warrnambool-based social justice agency.
Former staff told the ABC’s 7.30 Victoria program last Friday of cases where vulnerable children in residential care units were traumatised, carers were injured and employees were instructed to falsify reports of assaults and children running away.
Ms Whiting and former employee Gary Lucas, who won an unfair dismissal case against the agency, were also interviewed for the ABC program.
Ms Whiting said yesterday she had not spoken out in the past because she did not want to add to the negativity surrounding the agency.
“I’m now concerned about the quality of the service to the clients. It’s now got to the point where I have to speak up,” she said.
Community Connections board president Terry O’Keefe told The Standard the agency was aware of the allegations before they were aired on the ABC.
Mr O’Keefe said a Department of Human Services review had found the allegations raised in the program to be “totally without foundation”.
“We will not be commenting on any matter relating to the circumstances of individual children in the care of the agency, and find the actions of those who do so, in order to further their own agendas, to be beneath contempt,” he said yesterday.
“Ms Whiting, Mr Lucas and a small group of their supporters have for some time, for reasons of their own, been agitating for investigations into the operations of the agency.
“No doubt they will continue to do so.”
Ms Whiting, who spent 12 years on the board, including 10 years as president, said the culture, commitment and dedication of staff was once outstanding.
“This was a social welfare agency that six years ago you would climb over yourself to work for.”
She said the organisation was able to prosper and grow under the board and its chief executive Bruce du Vergier, who was once a visionary leader, but the culture changed about five years ago.
Ms Whiting resigned from the board in early 2009. She had spent the previous six months unsuccessfully calling for a full review of the agency’s management after hearing claims by employees that they were being continually harassed and bullied.
Her push followed a letter signed by 22 concerned staff sent directly to board members after they were unable to get a response from management. Ms Whiting said the letter was dismissed by Mr du Vergier at board level, claiming it came from a group of disgruntled staff and union agitators.
She said in the months following the board discussion, the employees who had signed the letter were targeted or their positions restructured. Less than a handful continue to work for the agency.
Mr O’Keefe said Community Connections was “still performing at a very high level, meets all of its targets, is financially stable, has very strong relationships with its funding bodies and has a strong and committed board working closely with a professional and competent executive”.
“CCVL have a strong and co-operative relationship with the Department of Human Services (DHS), and are conducting a service review (not an investigation) which will cover all CCVL programs which receive DHS funding under the community service agreement, with obvious and particular attention to residential care.
“Findings to date have failed to uncover any evidence supporting the allegations and has in fact revealed them to be totally without foundation,” Mr O’Keefe said.
Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge yesterday confirmed her department had commissioned an independent review into the quality of services at residential care units operated by a not-for-profit organisation in regional Victoria.
She said the review began in June after “a number of serious allegations” reported to DHS in the weeks prior.
“While the review is taking place, my department has increased monitoring of the services being provided by the agency,” Ms Wooldridge said.
“The welfare of the children is our key concern. If the independent review says we need to act to ensure the welfare of the children, we will do so.”
She said the quality review followed a separate review by independent auditors over concerns raised around industrial relations and governance matters, which was completed in March.
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