Child abuse ‘swept under the carpet’
The Dingwall Trust cares for vulnerable children, but former employees describe a ‘‘toxic’’ workplace where abuse allegations were not followed up. Edward Gay reports.
A trust that provides caregivers to some of the country’s most vulnerable children has been described by former staff members as a toxic workplace where a complaint of child abuse was ‘‘swept under the carpet’’.
The allegation of child abuse was made against Sushma and Paul Luxton while they worked at Dingwall Trust, an organisation that is contracted to provide caregivers and homes to children in state care.
The Luxtons were sentenced to home detention at the Manukau District Court in March after subjecting four vulnerable children to physical abuse for nearly three years.
The couple’s violence against the children, aged between six and 11 years, included punching, kicking, and pushing.
Sushma Luxton pushed one of the girl’s heads into a bathroom tap, and Paul Luxton admitted choking one of the children by using his forearms to pin the boy against a wall.
A former employee of Dingwall, who worked at the trust at the same time as the Luxtons, described it as a ‘‘toxic working environment’’.
Deborah* said concerns were raised about the Luxtons earlier, but nothing was done.
‘‘Management knew a child had been hit and there were various reports about [the Luxtons] being inappropriate caregivers. The children weren’t being treated well.’’
Asked if the complaint was followed up by management, Deborah said she felt it was ‘‘swept under the carpet’’ and the Luxtons were allowed to remain.
Deborah said she saw some caregivers verbally abusing children and the behaviour appeared to be tolerated by senior management.
Lynley* and her husband also worked as caregivers at Dingwall.
She spent time with Sushma Luxton in her cottage as part of ‘‘what they call training’’. It was the only training she received.
‘‘The Luxtons were held up as the model cottage because they had their kids really wellbehaved.’’
But Lynley said the atmosphere inside the Luxton’s cottage was ‘‘militaristic’’ – an institution, rather than a home.
‘‘My gut instinct was that [the children] were too robotic, they were so well-behaved and so polite that at first glance, you would think: ‘Wow, what amazing children’ but they weren’t being kids.’’
She said Sushma Luxton kept a padlock on the linen cupboard. Sushma told her she would only hand out towels to the children at shower time. She would also check the towels were wet afterwards, as proof the children had showered.
Food was treated similarly. The children were not allowed to help themselves. Instead, Sushma would serve the food to each child on individual plates, like doling out a ration.
‘‘I just felt like there was a high element of rigidity and a sense that ‘this is how it ought to be done, and you fall into line’.’’
Lynley said that was the opposite of her parenting style and that of her husband’s.
‘‘We wanted to create something that’s at least the semblance of a home, rather than an institution.’’
She said that was especially important, given the children at Dingwall all came from troubled backgrounds.
Lyney and her husband lasted a month at Dingwall before resigning.
‘‘I saw the writing on the wall, that in three to six months time I would be burnt out or have a nervous breakdown and part of that was probably unrealistic expectations from my point of view… but also I think it was the fact that once we were there we realised we couldn’t parent how we wanted to parent.’’
At the Luxtons’ sentencing, their lawyers said the couple had received little training before taking up their roles with the trust. Judge Richard McIlraith questioned what information Dingwall had on the couple before they were hired.
Medical evidence filed with the court showed Paul Luxton had a pre-existing brain injury that affected his ability to temper his emotions.
‘‘But should they have been employed in the first place? ‘‘Why were they still kept on after incidents with the kids? Yes, it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, but I don’t think it’s fair to put that all on Paul and Sushma.’’ Deborah
Deborah said she recalled a senior manager making jokes about Paul Luxton and his intelligence.
At the pair’s sentencing, Sushma Luxton’s lawyer said his client received inadequate training and described the Luxtons’ employment at the trust as ‘‘a disaster waiting to happen’’.
Deborah said that was a fair comment.
‘‘But should they have been employed in the first place?
‘‘Why were they still kept on after incidents with the kids? Yes, it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’, but I don’t think it’s fair to put that all on Paul and Sushma.’’
Deborah eventually left Dingwall because of what she
‘‘I just couldn’t tolerate it any more.’’
Mareana* is a social worker and assesses would-be caregivers before they are employed by organisations similar to Dingwall.
She said a medical examination was a prerequisite and medical conditions such as brain injuries and heart conditions could affect a person’s chances of being employed for such a position.
‘‘It would be a cause for concern if it impacted on their ability to care for a child.’’
Rachel* also worked caregiver at Dingwall.
She received specialist training at her previous job, working with as a ‘‘toxic environment’’. as a children who had experienced trauma, but said no training was offered by Dingwall.
She said whenever issues were raised about training, staff were told to ‘‘just deal with it’’.
‘‘We were told we weren’t expected to cure them or improve them in any way, and just carry on.’’
Rachel says one of the boys she was looking after had Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and at eight years-old did not know how to use a toilet.
She also had two toddlers in her care, a seven year-old with ADHD who would run away, and a teenager who was self-harming.
Rachel would get one day off a week, when another staff member was brought in to look after the children in her care.
She said twice she returned from her day off to find one of the toddlers had a dislocated elbow.
She was told the child had received the injuries when being picked up by a male staff member by the hands.
‘‘Why would you ever need to pick a kid up like that?’’ she asked.
She raised the issue with management but was told the child had ‘‘flexible joints’’.
‘‘Nothing came of said.
‘‘It kind of seems like they would almost take anybody in because they were desperate to have somebody to mind the kids.’’ Rachel lasted less than a year. ‘‘I was quite broken at the end of it.’’
The Sunday Star-Times asked Dingwall a series of questions about the specific allegations made by former staff members.
Instead of answering the questions, Dingwall CEO Claudine Young issued a statement, asking the former staff members to come forward and provide details, so they could be investigated.
‘‘They have my commitment that their concerns will be investigated confidentially, sensitively and thoroughly. If wrongdoing is found to have occurred, and vulnerable children have been let down, we will take action.’’
Young was not Dingwall at the allegations.
The trust’s former CEO who was in charge at the time did not respond to requests for comment.
Young’s statement did not address whether the Trust knew of Paul Luxton’s brain injury before hiring him, or an earlier complaint about the Luxtons and whether it had been reported to Oranga Tamariki.
Young said she could not discuss health information for legal reasons.
‘‘We can confirm, however, that the Luxtons went through the standard recruitment prosess that all Dingwall caregivers were required to undertake at that time. This included supplying a health declaration, undergoing a police check and completing the necessary it,’’ Rachel in charge of time of the training to the satisfaction of a social worker.’’
Young said the children placed in the care of the Luxtons were ‘‘let down’’ and the organisation would do everything it could to make sure it never happened again.
‘‘Following the case, we put in place new systems and processes, including a new child protection policy, a child risk register and a commitment to develop a new Code of Conduct and Whistle Blower policy. A new senior management was also appointed.’’
She says in her time at Dingwall she has implemented a ‘‘rigorous’’ new vetting process.
‘‘All new practice staff are now required to undergo a sixweek induction/training programme before being allowed to work with children and young people unsupervised.’’
Oranga Tamariki was likewise asked a series of questions relating to the allegations.
The organisation’s deputy chief executive in charge of ‘‘partnering for outcomes’’, Celia Patrick, also issued a statement and did not answer questions about whether Oranga Tamariki had been notified of the elbow incidents, or a previous complaint against the Luxtons.
However, she did say Oranga Tamariki was not aware of the allegations of a toxic working environment or lack of training at Dingwall.
Patrick said Oranga Tamariki and its predecessor had used the Trust for the past 20 years and would continue to do so.
She said the Trust could provide placements for larger sibling groups that allowed children to stay close to siblings after experiencing trauma.
Patrick said Oranga Tamariki monitored providers to ensure they were compliant with national standards.
‘‘We are confident that Dingwall Trust has responded appropriately to the issues that have been raised, and we will continue to use the services of the Trust in the future.’’
* Names identities.