Disturbing tales from behind closed doors

Information of ''great concern'' ... some residents were removed from Grand Western Lodge, run by Adrian Powell.
Information of ''great concern'' ... some residents were removed from Grand Western Lodge, run by Adrian Powell.

His supporters call him a saint. Adrian Powell has fought the government for more than a decade, and won. But now the doors on his private boarding house in the small town of Millthorpe, near Orange, have been prised open a little to hear claims about the lives of some of its 48 residents.

Residents who swore at the staff were confined to the boarding house's back room, sometimes for months, and could feel very lonely, a Guardianship Tribunal was told.

Residents who ''played up'' were dosed with the major tranquilliser Largactil that Powell kept in a cupboard, even though it had not been prescribed for them.

According to claims by residents, several people had jumped, or fallen, off the second-floor balcony of the boarding house, sustaining serious injuries; two residents had tried to run away. Many did not have a bank account or know their PIN and Powell managed their financial affairs.

As well, an elected residents' committee meted out punishments on misbehaving residents, including grappling them to the ground. Some residents, the tribunal heard, had virtually no life outside the confines of the boarding house.

In tense scenes at the two-day hearing in Bathurst this month, the NSW government lodged applications for guardianship orders for 13 residents of the Grand Western Lodge boarding house, and was successful in all cases.

The hearing was unprecedented in the number of residents, lawyers and high-level bureaucrats gathered for proceedings of this nature.

Grand Western Lodge is one of 31 privately-owned facilities licensed by the government to provide accommodation and support for people with psychiatric and intellectual disabilities. Powell has run it since he converted a Federation-era pub in 1987.

The Ageing, Disability and Home Care department, which is charged with monitoring licensed boarding houses, argued the residents were not capable of making their own decisions and needed an independent guardian to help them decide where to live, how to manage their money, and what medical and other services they needed.

The head of the tribunal, Robin Gurr, asked on more than one occasion why action had not been taken sooner. Some of the residents have lived at Grand Western Lodge since the state's big psychiatric and disability institutions were closed more than 20 years ago.

One after another the residents trooped into a cramped, windowless room to tell their story under the fluorescent lights of the Bathurst Business Centre.

An elderly nun, a vociferous defender of the boarding house, was present; behind her sat workers from a disability advocacy group who say their efforts to speak privately to residents have been thwarted.

Some residents were old and frail with slurred speech and shaking hands; one was floridly unwell. Some were younger and able to give an account of their lives at the lodge, a place with a reputation for resisting official scrutiny. Each resident had a legal aid solicitor assigned and, for legal reasons, cannot be identified.

One man, elderly and mentally ill, told the tribunal he had spent a year in the back room for swearing but was let out for meals and to go to bed at night. He volunteered he had a bad record but the residents' committee did not ''hit'', ''punch'' or ''abuse'' him, and he assured the tribunal no one had told him what to say. He was one of two residents who claimed to have been dosed with Largactil, a practice the medical representative on the tribunal, Dr Melanie Wroth, said was illegal.

A woman, frail as a bird with psychiatric illness and with an admitted need for help in decision making, said she had made a will in favour of Powell. An elderly man, with quite a lot of money, it turned out, was in need of serious dental work. A long-time resident said he had been taken to an activities centre for the first time recently - ''since the proceedings have been afoot'', added the assistant director of the Office of Public Guardian, Trish Davidson.

But to some of the residents and their relatives Powell was their saviour. ''He is a saint,'' said the relative of one resident. He had taken people in when the big institutions closed. He had created an extended family and taken the residents on holidays twice a year. Another relative said she could not fault Powell's care. ''If you take this old man from here … that will be [his] downfall.''

A resident said he had tried to live independently for five years but found it lonely and went back to live at Grand Western Lodge. Most residents said they wanted to stay. Even a man who had once run away now considered himself part of the furniture: ''No other bastard's going to take me in,'' he said, ''because I'm mad.''

The snowy-haired and bearded Powell was not a party to the proceedings, so was not in a position to respond to the matters raised by the residents. He stayed with his tenants in a side room as they waited their turn. His solicitor, Clive Hill, told the Herald outside the tribunal the claim about the resident making a will in favour of his client was not true. And Gurr said the allegations made at the tribunal were untested. The department launched its actions for guardianship orders as the NSW Ombudsman completed his third report in nine years on the department's failure to properly monitor the welfare of the lodge's residents.

The Herald has obtained the draft findings of the report, which will not be made public. It raises questions of ''serious maladministration'' by the department for its failure to investigate longstanding issues and serious complaints about the boarding house.

The report shows Powell has frustrated government inspections over many years. A particular concern was the level of control he exercised over the residents' lives.

With the Ombudsman's investigation under way, the department conducted a full review of the boarding house late last year and found 37 high-level breaches of the licence that place the ''immediate health, comfort, safety and proper care of residents at risk''. But the review did not find residents had been abused or neglected.

For some former inmates of the big institutions, boarding houses are all they have known; but others live in group homes or independently with support. Since the late 1990s state governments, with the co-operation of boarding house owners, have tried to lift boarding house standards, improve quality of life for residents and keep them connected to the community.

The government does not fund private boarding houses but the licensees are entitled to take all or part of the residents' pensions. Licensees must comply with a law and regulations that mandate inspections and resident access to government-funded recreational services.

As the doors began to open on Grand Western Lodge, Gurr said one resident had ''provided us with some information that is of great concern''. Another had said the lodge ''might not be happy about his wanting to move away''. Two residents told the tribunal they wanted to leave the lodge and were immediately taken elsewhere for their own safety. A third was removed a few days later.