Thursday, January 22, 2009
Karen Smith Whistleblower
May The Force Be With You!
Paper prepared by Karen Smith
for “Pathological Behaviours in the Workplace” Conference, 16 Dec. 2008
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address you all at this conference today. I invite you to come with me on a journey. The road I have travelled is the long, difficult and sometimes lonely road of the whistleblower. It is my sincere hope that my experiences may be of some benefit to you.
I am an Advanced Assistant in Nursing employed in a large, high-level care nursing home - EVENTIDE NURSING HOME, BRIGHTON/SANDGATE in Brisbane. I am 55 years old and have worked in aged care for over eight and a half years. I began my employment as a personal carer at a private aged care hostel and worked there for six months. I supplemented my hours with extra casual work at my facility. Later on I became a permanent part time employee and I remain in this position.
My task here is to tell you about my personal experiences of pathological behaviours encountered when I reported the unsatisfactory behaviours and attitudes of staff to the authorities. To achieve this I need to begin this journey by describing what led me to become a whistleblower. Secondly, I will summarise the adverse and positive impacts that reporting inconvenient truths can have on the life of a whistleblower. Thirdly, some observations on the extent of the support available to a whistleblower.
I became a “whistleblower” when my original complaints to senior staff at EVENTIDE were trivialised and mishandled. Making me a scapegoat was a deliberate, calculated part of the process. Some years later, I gave a Public Interest Disclosure to the Crime and Misconduct Commission in June 2004 regarding the assaults of three elderly psychiatric patients by two staff members, one a Registered Nurse and the other an Advanced Assistant in Nursing.
I witnessed abuse of residents long before formal complaints were made to higher authorities. As already mentioned, I had brought the matter of abuse of residents by staff to the attention of management in 2000. The treatment of myself by management at that time left me very disillusioned and distressed. Speaking out about abuse, neglect and assault was not encouraged. It soon became apparent that speaking out was also very much frowned upon, not only by management but also by some of my own peers. My most vivid memory of this time was the abuse of a very frail female resident by a staff member. This carer would mix up the resident’s food into one gelatinous mess and shovel it into the resident’s mouth. When this staff member saw me looking at her she asked me what I was looking at. I told her I wondered how long it would be before she choked the poor resident or broke her teeth. The staff member told me to “mind my own business”. (There was an angry expletive included in her response, but I will not repeat it!)
When this feeding routine and other serious incidents were brought to the attention of management, I was told that it was me who had the problem. I was accused of being abrupt and aloof. I was accused of not being a team player and I was accused of being a racist. My supposed inability to follow directions and other personal weaknesses were emphasised.
As the years went by, I became very familiar with this type of response from management because they were unable or unwilling to tackle serious incidents brought to their attention. The Code Of Conduct was often mentioned to me – not as a guide – but as a tool to further intimidate and oppress me. “Shoot the messenger” was easier than dealing with the problem. I was so traumatized by this experience that I refused to return to work in the unit where these unsavory happenings had occurred. Instead, I was offered another unit within the facility and began my night shifts there later in 2001.
In 2002, for the first time, 16 psychiatricly ill residents were admitted to one of the units. Advanced Assistants In Nursing were offered the opportunity to work with experienced psychiatric nursing staff in this unit. I had always had an interest in mental disorders and was therefore pleased to be assigned to work there.
In early 2004, I reported the assaults of three mental health patients to the Executive Director/ Director of Nursing. I was told that the matter would be investigated internally and informally. Abruptly, I was removed from working in the mental health unit. I subsequently became very distressed at this action and became ill. I was to eventually take 5 months off on unpaid stress leave. My WorkCover claim for this period was rejected at the time. A supportive Registered Nurse later informed me that the two perpetrators remained in the unit for two more months. This information caused me additional distress. Later on, this information was of great concern to the detectives investigating the case.
In May 2004 I attended a meeting with management and the two staff named by me as the perpetrators, were present. Management allowed both to be present to support each other. I believe this meeting and the way it was conducted was a turning point for me. If ever I was going to leave aged care nursing and never return, it was then. I had to endure this meeting knowing that I was as good as on my own. I was a Queensland Nurses’ Union (QNU) representative for quite some time until this meeting and the other two staff were also QNU members. I will only say that I believe I was very badly let down by the QNU organizer at this meeting. After the meeting finished, I requested copies of the notes taken. I was made to wait some time before I received these notes. I have at times taken steps to obtain documents through Freedom of Information and I have been astounded at the incompetence of some of the note taking.
After exhausting all internal avenues, I decided to make a complaint to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). I was advised to make a written statement, which was duly sent on the 22 June 2004. It would be one full month before I contacted the CMC to follow up on the progress of my complaint. On the 22 July 2004, I travelled to CMC headquarters and presented my evidence. My husband and my solicitor at the time accompanied me to this interview. I reported the assaults and mistreatment of the three residents. I also reported other serious matters to the investigator and a senior detective. I have the tape-recorded interview, as this is the normal procedure when evidence of a serious nature is gathered. The outcome was that the Queensland Nursing Council eventually suspended the Registered Nurse for two years and she was subsequently dismissed. The advanced assistant in nursing eventually became one of the highest paid AAIN’s to work in my facility. She received all penalty shifts and set days off. To my knowledge the Advanced Assistant In Nursing, involved in these events, has since gracefully retired.
Under the Freedom of Information Act I was able to obtain a copy of the Queensland Police Service interview document. In August 2005, I met with staff of the Public Advocate’s Office and was asked to write a submission to the Queensland Public Hospitals Commission of Inquiry. This office acknowledged that I had credible and significant evidence to present to the Inquiry. At that time I was studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree majoring in Ethics and Human Rights and Society and Change at QUT. I was granted a leave of absence and special consideration to suspend my studies, without academic penalty, while I wrote my submission. This document was submitted to the Queensland Public Hospitals Commission of Inquiry on the 14 October 2005.
Meanwhile, my role as a whistleblower continues. In the past three years I have brought other serious matters to the attention of the federal Department of Health and Ageing, the Crime and Misconduct Commission, the Premier’s office, the Minister for Health, the Leader of the Opposition, different members of Parliament and the media. I have appeared on television on the 7.30 Report with Senator Santo Santoro; I have had numerous articles published in different newspapers; I have been interviewed by Madonna King on radio; I have recently appeared on Network Ten News and I have been interviewed by the Queensland Police Service.
I am now going to pre-empt a question that may be asked of me during question
time. It is a question that is often asked of me by care staff, other nurses, friends, relatives and reporters. Would I do it again? The answer is: Yes. Would I recommend it to others? Not without clear knowledge of the impact that a disclosure will have on your life and the lives of the people closest to you. Unswerving support is needed from those closest to you. Those who have intimate knowledge of the consequences of such a step will tell you how imperative it is to have absolute support.
The next part of this presentation about my whistleblower journey concerns the adverse and positive aspects of the reporting of inconvenient truths. I cannot stand here today and lead you to believe that the road travelled by the whistleblower is in any way easy. When I support or advocate for other whistleblowers, staff members or anonymous covert disclosers, I emphasise that once this journey begins – there is no turning back. The treatment you may endure when you become a whistleblower can be devastating.
You can expect to be labelled. Being labelled with a Personality Disorder is often a comment by staff opposed to disclosures. You may be called derogatory names. You will certainly be isolated. Some people may only be capable of being covertly supportive; such is the fear of the consequences of speaking out. You can expect to be forced to undergo hours of testing if you make a claim for psychological or psychiatric injury through WorkCover. You can expect to be the subject of a great deal of gossip and rumour, which will damage your reputation. I have found that some rumours are quite interesting, but rarely based in fact. You can expect to receive legal threats and threatening memorandums from different entities. Or - as in my case - threats of criminal charges being brought against you. You can expect to be the recipient of many hours of investigation or interviews. You can expect to be accused of “tarring all nurses with the same brush”. You most certainly will be accused of lying. You can expect reprisals in the form of work shift changes, penalty shifts being removed and being reported for minor misdemeanors. You will certainly experience health problems. You can expect, at times, to feel very much alone. Welcome to my world!!
What about the positive aspects of being a whistleblower?
A determined whistleblower learns to be courageous and determined that the issues they report will have an outcome. Adopting strategies to protect themselves from the pathological behaviour of others is important and character building. A determined whistleblower will begin to learn that you can become immune or desensitized to the gossip and rumours that are most certainly brought to your attention. Another positive outcome, for me personally, was the ability to maintain my dignity and self-respect. Even on the worst days of my whistleblower journey, I have never lost my self-respect. Indeed, I believe my self-respect has increased.
The outcome I would personally like to witness would be that policies and procedures are actually implemented. When there is irrefutable evidence that wrongdoing has occurred, the perpetrators reported will be held to account for their actions. The whistleblower disclosing the allegations would be commended rather than condemned.
Another positive aspect is the wonderfully supportive people that you meet when you become a whistleblower. This aspect cannot and should not be under-estimated. I have personally met some very supportive people. Some, I might add, are residents’ family members who have contacted me.
Ideally, on the positive side of things there are lessons to be learned which enhance the values of our society. Those who take on the whistleblower role, and who present credible evidence, have the right to question authorities, to ask for accountability, transparency and for wrongs to be righted. Specifically, conscientious nurses in our health care system should be able to report abuse, assault and neglect without fear of reprisal.
This brings me to the question - what support is there for whistleblowers?
I am optimistic that the Whistleblower Protection Act will be changed to include the recommendations of Tony Morris QC. He has suggested that when a whistleblower has exhausted all internal avenues, has approached all recommended authorities and still has no satisfactory outcome, that the whistleblower be able to contact the media.
Not surprisingly, my experience is that my support has often come from outside the workplace. I have had the privilege of meeting lawyer, Susan Moriarty and her staff, who have supported me and encouraged me since I was accepted as a client in 2005. Although I am no longer a client, I am extremely grateful to have had this support. We travelled this long, difficult road together for quite some time and I believe learnt many valuable lessons along the way. As you know, Susan was one of the speakers at this conference yesterday.
I was in the Magistrates court for the first two days of the Inquiry. I saw the great respect that Tony Morris showed to Toni Hoffman when she had finished giving her evidence. I was privileged to be present when Toni Hoffman and Doctor Con Aroney received their awards from Whistleblowers Australia. She was accused of racism and having interpersonal communication issues when she dared to speak out.
In my view, the best protection and support for whistleblowers is networking. This involves gathering around you people of a like mind who are committed to supporting you and travelling beside you for at least part of the long journey. I joined Whistleblowers Australia and I remain a proud member. The Whistleblowers Australia website has invaluable information for anyone contemplating disclosure.
In the midst of this harsh journey when things were particularly challenging, I woke up one morning with the answer to the dilemma of how to help other whistleblowers. My idea is called SING which stands for Silence Is Not Golden. This initiative is designed for nurses and health professionals who need support when they are making – or have made – a decision to become a whistleblower. In your conference proceedings you have an image of the newspaper advertisement that I paid for last year when I launched this idea. I am grateful to www.badapplebullies.com for providing a spot for this advertisement on their website as an interim measure. An experienced whistleblower, in my view, has an obligation to support and protect others who demonstrate the fortitude and courage to speak out. Members of SING Support Group attended the headquarters of the federal government’s Department of Health and Ageing only last week. We were to present to the Crime and Misconduct Commission tomorrow to discuss serious matters of misconduct and reprisal against one of our members. I was given a message yesterday while I was attending this conference that this meeting has been postponed. This is the second time this has occurred. This casual whistleblower confided to me that she had witnessed abuse and assault and did not know what she should do. When the appropriate authorities were contacted and we asked for a meeting to guarantee her protection, we were rebuffed. I remain passionate about the protection of whistleblowers reporting abuse, assault, neglect or harm of the vulnerable elderly or disabled citizens in their care. It is absolutely imperative that the fear factor is eliminated for staff blowing the whistle.
When I was studying at QUT I used to pass a classroom that had a daily quotation written on the whiteboard. One day I found it was a quote from Martin Luther King Jr which has a great deal of relevance to me
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” Please don’t let your lives begin to end by remaining silent about things that matter. My experiences have left me with a conviction that people suffer more – much more - when they remain silent.
Finally, I wish to state that allowing whistleblowers to speak out safely promotes honest, efficient and compliant workplaces. In fact, if we want to achieve high quality care in our health care delivery system, supporting genuine whistleblowers is essential. It is not an optional extra.
Thank you for your time and attention and for travelling on this journey with me today.
THIS SPEECH RECEIVED A STANDING OVATION BY ALL THOSE PRESENT. OVER 220 PEOPLE ATTENDED THIS CONFERENCE HELD BY AUSMED CONFERENCES PTY LTD .
ON THE 25 FEBRUARY 2009 IN A THREE PAGE LETTER TO KAREN SMITH, HER EMPLOYMENT WAS TERMINATED BY QUEENSLAND HEALTH.
Karen Smith's email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
TO VIEW ALL SING POSTS, SIMPLY RETURN TO THE TOP SECTION AND CLICK ON THE WORD "SING" IN THE RECTANGULAR BOX OR GO TO (1) 'HOME' ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE OF SING'S WEBSITE.