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Susan – Family violence and public mental health services

Complaint story about family violence and a Victorian public mental health service.

Please note: this complaint story includes experiences of family violence.

What Susan told us

Susan is a young woman who has separated from her husband, Andrew. She contacted the MHCC to raise concerns that her community mental health service planned to discuss her treatment and care with her former husband instead of her sister, who is her carer. She said she had specifically asked staff not to do so because of Andrew’s ongoing psychological and emotional abuse. This included threatening to prevent her from seeing their child. The service staff told Susan that Andrew had advised them he was her carer and they therefore felt they needed his participation..

Susan’s rights

Victoria’s Mental Health Act 2014 and its principles protect the rights of people like Susan who are receiving mental health treatment from a public mental health service.

The principles in the Victorian Mental Health Act 2014 most relevant to Susan’s situation are as follows:

e) Promote rights, dignity and autonomy

Persons receiving mental health services should have their rights, dignity and autonomy respected and promoted.

This principle needs to be interpreted in conjunction with the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) and the obligations on mental health services to protect people from family violence.

c) Ensure supported decision making 

Persons receiving mental health services should be involved in all decisions about their assessment, treatment and recovery and be supported to make, or participate in, those decisions, and their views and preferences should be respected.

g) Recognise and respond to individual needs

Persons receiving mental health services should have their individual needs (whether as to culture, language, communication, age, disability, religion, gender, sexuality or other matters) recognised and responded to.

In order to maintain Susan’s rights, dignity and respect, and to meet her individual needs, a meeting with an alleged perpetrator of family violence should not take place against her expressed wishes. Susan has the right to be heard and for her preferences to be followed wherever possible.

What we did

Susan called the MHCC shortly before the meeting the service had arranged with Andrew, wanting it not to proceed. We immediately contacted the service’s staff but they said it would go ahead. Susan felt she had to go as she did not want discussions about her to occur without her.

Susan rang us after the meeting, distressed and traumatised. She said that Andrew had been verbally abusive, causing her to leave part way through with her support person. He then found her and continued to harass her, which was another incidence of family violence.

We assessed that the service’s actions went against the Act and the Chief Psychiatrist’s guideline and practice resource: family violence (2017). We helped Susan to put her concerns in writing and requested a formal response from the service to explain their actions. The service responded that the meeting had been needed to determine how to communicate with both parties, given Andrew had claimed he was Susan’s carer. However, staff acknowledged the distress it had caused Susan.

We also requested and facilitated a face-to-face meeting with the service where Susan was able to give direct feedback about her experiences. Staff acknowledged Susan’s trauma and distress and their failure to recognise and address the risks of family violence. They apologised to her and outlined actions they were taking to implement new systems and practices to address family violence. These actions included training for clinical staff and the employment of a part-time family violence worker.

Outcomes

Susan told us that she was glad she participated in this meeting and felt listened to. In closing the complaint, the MHCC made additional recommendations to the service, including that it respect victim survivor’s wishes about family members’ involvement in their treatment and care. Susan’s complaint highlights the importance of mental health staff being skilled in recognising, understanding, and responding effectively to family violence as a fundamental violation of human rights.

Please note: names and some details in this complaint story have been omitted to protect the identity of those involved.

Reviewed 21 April 2021

Mental Health Complaints Commissioner (MHCC)

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