Apr 28, 2022

Esther Foundation, now subject to claims of sexual and psychological abuse, supported by multiple WA governments

Joanna Trilling and Alicia Bridges
ABC Radio Perth
April 7, 2022

Official statements, news releases and the recollections of a former premier show how multiple West Australian governments funded, supported and celebrated a Christian rehab facility that is now the focus of a parliamentary investigation into allegations of psychological and sexual abuse and inappropriate treatment.

Communities Minister Simone McGurk, who tabled the motion for the investigation, told parliament those allegations include criminal complaints of sexual abuse, as well as residents being denied food, being banned from contacting friends and family, illegal restraints, and Aboriginal residents being told their language and culture was akin to being possessed by the devil.

"Under the current framework the state has very limited oversight of this facility," Ms McGurk said.

"We are asking the inquiry to look at the current regulatory and legislative frameworks in place to understand if there are ways we can improve existing provisions, or if there are gaps that might need to be addressed."

The investigation is due to be completed by December 1 this year.

Several women have recently come forward with allegations about Esther Foundation's residential centres, saying they received treatment from unqualified workers that involved "exorcising demons", and individuals not being allowed to speak for months.

In March the Esther Foundation issued an apology, saying it had undergone a complete overhaul and change of management since the time of the allegations between 2003 and 2019.

The WA departments of health and communities recently confirmed they had referred multiple young women to the Esther Foundation's residential program, but Ms McGurk said that would not occur again.

But as recently as 2018, the McGowan government was singing the praises of the Esther Foundation and its residential program for women at the old St Emilie's convent in Kalamunda.

Key points:
  • Numerous women have come forward with allegations of psychological abuse and inappropriate treatment through the Esther Foundation rehabilitation program
  • A parliamentary committee will investigate the claims, which Communities Minister Simone McGurk says include sexual abuse allegations
  • Multiple WA governments supported the facility, including the purchase of the $3.9m property and former convent where the residential program is now located
  • Yesterday state parliament voted in favour of the investigation into allegations against the Esther Foundation, which says it provides counselling for issues including addictions, sexual abuse and mental health.

'Unaware' of 'another side'

In June of 2018, then-housing minister Peter Tinley described the foundation as a "wonderful" project that was "life-changing" for women.

"Crisis accommodation projects such as [The Esther Foundation's] St Emilie's Lodging Facility are an integral part of the McGowan government's soon to be released Affordable Housing Action Plan, which lays a path to support our most vulnerable Western Australians," he said.

The Department of Communities' support for the foundation dates back to 2010.

Starting in the late 2000s, former WA premier Colin Barnett personally championed the Esther Foundation and signed off on his government's $3.9 million purchase of the St Emilie's land.

He now says he was not aware of any concerns about harm or abuse of residents at the time.

"If there was another side, I was unaware of that," Mr Barnett said in an interview with the ABC.

"And I'm disappointed to hear about that."

Mr Barnett said he personally donated to the foundation and encouraged friends and businesspeople to do the same.

He was premier in 2010 when the WA Housing Authority, under the umbrella of the Department of Communities, purchased the former St. Emilie's convent for the purpose of housing an expanded Esther Foundation residential facility.

Mr Barnett said he did not advocate for the purchase of St Emilie's, located in Kalamunda, as a politician.

"I was a little bit hands-off that, because I was conscious that I privately supported them," he said.

"I didn't push for the large amounts of money but I was certainly supportive of the St Emilie's project … I was the minister that signed off when they came with that recommendation to me."

Government purchases

The Esther Foundation made a further request for funding to build a new residential facility, structured around the old convent buildings.

Perth Christian rehab facility apologises after allegations of psychological abuse, inappropriate treatment

The request was initially knocked back by Lotterywest, but in 2012 Lotterywest agreed to provide a $3.5m grant to not-for-profit housing organisation Community Housing Limited (CHL) after it partnered with the Esther Foundation on the project.

CHL now subleases the property to the Esther Foundation.

The Department of Communities also provided $200,000 to furnish the new facility.

Mr Barnett said he supported the project because he had been impressed by its leadership at the time and impressed by the personal stories of the young women he met at Esther Foundation facilities.

"These young women came out and they told their stories openly," he said.

"They'd said that they were getting better and most of them were … staying off drugs."

In 2018 the WA Housing Authority paid $790,000 for a property in Maida Vale that it leases to the Esther Foundation.

Foundation to cooperate

WA Police urged anyone with a criminal complaint to contact police.

The foundation has said it will cooperate with any investigation, criminal or otherwise.

The foundation's acting chief executive Aaron Hines said "an independent and suitably qualified person" would be appointed to work with former residents who wanted to share their story.

"[The allegations] relate to a time period before I and our executive team joined the foundation," Mr Hines said.

"We are endeavouring to obtain more details."

If you or anyone you know needs help:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890
  • ReachOut at au.reachout.com
  • MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
  • Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774
  • Head to Health at headtohealth.gov.au

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