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Annual Report

Community Visitors are volunteers who play a vital role in safeguarding the rights of people with disability and fostering their inclusion in the community.

Safeguarding in a pandemic

This year has been a very challenging and difficult time for the Victorian community.

Notwithstanding the challenges presented by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, our dedicated and committed volunteer Community Visitors continued to play an important role in safeguarding the rights and interests of people with disability. They have been a part of making this difficult time safer for our clients.

They pivoted to providing their services remotely by phone or video when prevented from visiting disability group homes, mental health units and Supported Residential Services (SRS) in person.

Community Visitors in metropolitan Melbourne, for example, were only able to attend facilities in person for 65 per cent of the year due to lockdowns.

Remote safeguarding, however, presented some massive logistical challenges as Community Visitors visit over 1400 locations.

Some Community Visitors have not conducted in-person visits this year due to health risks as 74 per cent are in the high-risk age range of 55 to 84 years. Others took extended leave due to their own or family’s health concerns; or were worried about potential exposure for those they visited.

It is a testament to the commitment of these stalwart Victorians that, despite all the obstacles, the number of visits only decreased by 10 per cent over last year.

While Community Visitors prefer to conduct visits  in person to ensure that they can communicate as effectively as possible with people with disability or mental illness, they have risen to every challenge lockdown posed. They continued to connect online with residents and patients, each other, and service providers. Their technological skills increased enormously, and the vast majority are now able to operate effectively in the new environment.

One innovation was an Easy English mail-out to every consumer that Community Visitors engaged with across all three streams. It encouraged them to answer a short survey and request a personal call-back, if desired. It aimed to assure the 11,500 clients understood they had not been forgotten.

Impressively, 360 responses to the survey were received from residents in the Disability Services stream, with 58 requesting follow-up. Their key concerns were not being able to have visitors or go out in the community.

There were 64 responses in the Mental Health stream, with 16 people requesting follow-up. Their key concern was access to secure accommodation post-discharge. While the number of responses from SRS residents was small, there has been a 3.5 per cent increase in calls to OPA's Advice Service over the last two years for Community Visitors from SRS residents, their family, and supporters.

Remote safeguarding has changed the way Community Visitors work. In a relatively short period, they have moved from a totally paper-based practice to utilising electronic reporting. Although still in its infancy, the program hopes to build on these learnings on its road to digitisation.

This process was facilitated by the Disability Services COVID-19 funding which the Community Visitors Program received from the Department of Health and Human Services, as it was then, which enabled the purchase and configuration of tablets as well as internet access for more Community Visitors.

Abuse, neglect and violence

Community Visitors have been advocating for the safety and wellbeing of their clients for 34 years.

Their dogged focus on issues of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation has resulted in significant system reform—nationwide.

This includes that the most serious of the issues  are now referred for investigation to the Disability Services Commissioner (DSC) and the NDIS Quality and Safeguards Commission.

This year, Community Visitors referred 51 serious incidents to the DSC and 36 to the commission  in their work to prevent violence, abuse and exploitation of people with disability.

The less serious issues are reported on and dealt with at the facility level.

The abuse statistics this year are substantially reduced compared to last year, as remote forms of safeguarding required by the COVID-19 restrictions do not compare to face-to-face visiting in people's homes.

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