Parliament: Parliamentary Initiatives

Family Carers

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I move:

That this council:

1.Notes with grave concern and sadness the recent passing of a young man with disabilities at the hands of his own mother.

2.Recognises that the Supreme Court has heard that the physical and emotional toll of being the full-time carer to a child with disabilities has played a part in the woman taking the life of her child.

3.Acknowledges that the desperation, helplessness and depression experts say was experienced by this woman is in fact felt by many other unpaid family carers of people with disabilities, particularly children with very high needs.

4.Understands there is a strong correlation between the physical and mental health of the carer and that of the person for whom they care.

5. Congratulates organisations such as the Carer Wellness Centre in the Adelaide Hills on its work to support carers.

6. Calls on this government to take immediate action to increase support, including mental health checks and respite for unpaid carers, with the aim of preventing another horrible tragedy such as the one which recently occurred.

I am moving this motion because I hope it will uncover an ugly truth which lurks within the disability community and is often ignored or dismissed by those outside it. On 26 July 2009 Beverley May Eitzen drove the dead body of her son to the Mount Barker police station. The back seat of the car was bloody and the corpse of 16-year-old Peter Eitzen was slumped in it. A wound to his neck was the most obvious cause of his death.

Peter had been stabbed by Beverley, his mother, as she had attempted to kill them both. While she was feeding a hose connected to the exhaust pipe of their car through the car window and preparing to close herself and Peter in the toxic cabin, Peter woke up from the sleep which had been induced with an antihistamine tablet and began to struggle. Beverley, the mother who had cared for him his whole life, calmed him, waited for him to fall back to sleep and then stabbed him, cradling Peter as life left him.

After Peter died Beverley considered killing herself, but instead she drove to the Mount Barker police station and stood before the officers on duty, telling them that she had done the ‘un undoable’; she had killed her own son. I feel as though the events I am currently describing should belong in the pages of some fictitious novel but, tragically, these are the real-life actions of Beverley, a kind and loving mother who was pushed to her limit; and Peter, a young man who fell through the cracks of our system to a point of no return.

It was not until more than a year later that psychiatric experts found that Beverley Eitzen was suffering from a major depressive episode while these events unfolded. She told police that her memory of that day was blank, and three independent experts agreed that she was not aware that her actions were wrong.

Of course, this fact that she did not know her actions were wrong cannot undo what has been done here. No expert opinion can bring Peter Eitzen back to us. But it would seem that this situation and the circumstances which led to it are in no way as clear cut as some people might think. To that effect I would like to quote a comment left on my official Facebook page in regard to the Eitzens’ situation:

Newspaper headline read ‘free at last’ but she will never be free after the physical and mental strain of trying her best to raise a child without a strong, clear diagnosis. Also the pain and guilt of taking her own child’s life.’

So, yes, Beverley Eitzen took her son’s life without consent, which would generally be viewed as an act of murder. However, it would seem to me that she may have thought at the time that she was in fact saving Peter’s life—both of their lives in fact—by delivering them from an existence full of desperation, loneliness and anguish. Of course, this is mere speculation on the many millions of things that could be running through a person’s head when they are found to be in this situation.

A few weeks ago I did a radio interview late one night regarding the Eitzen family. Immediately after, my phone rang. It was a very dear friend of mine saying, ‘Kelly, I won’t judge you. I won’t tell anyone. You know you can trust me. Just tell me, do you think that that person is a murderer?’ Well, Mr President, as I am sure you have picked up, it is not often that I am left without words to say, but when my friend asked me that question a cold kind of silence followed it. I opened and closed my mouth a few times as I grappled with the insufficiency of my vocabulary to describe something like this. Eventually I did manage to say the only thing I felt I could: ‘I honestly don’t know how to answer that question.’ In all honesty, I doubt that I will ever know.

The finding that Beverley was unaware of the gravity of her actions at the time did not surprise those who knew her, because the Beverley they knew was a lady who was dedicated and devoted to her family and who worked hard to get the best she could for them. She was not a mother who anyone imagined would be capable of killing her son, but this transformation—this desperation, which is so deep that it can cause people to carry out actions which are well beyond their own personal scope—is not so foreign for us who work and live in the disability community.

You see, all three psychiatric experts also agreed on the cause of Beverley’s major depressive episode. While Beverley’s situation is her own and no-one else’s, the cause can be found in many homes across South Australia, waiting to turn ordinary people towards acts of inexplicable horror. The cause of Beverley’s mental health problems was the pressure of caring for Peter. Peter had a disability and, while his disability was never given any specific label, it was medically accepted that he had the mental capacity of roughly a two-year-old child.

His development was difficult and there was trouble with basic things like toilet training and talking. As he grew older, he understandably grew increasingly frustrated and physically stronger. The Eitzen’s home was regularly ransacked by Peter, furniture was destroyed, doors and cupboards were broken, and family members were beaten. Every day Beverley woke up and faced almost complete uncertainty about what Peter might do that day. She had one certainty though: she knew that, whatever it was Peter did, it would probably be violent.

Despite this, Beverley had little support, apart from that given by her own family members. The government left Beverley to care for herself and her son, due to the fact that Peter’s lack of official diagnosis rendered him ineligible for services, and the pressure wore Beverley down. One of the psychiatric experts hinted at what most concerned Beverley about her situation. Dr Noelle Tomczyk said she had ‘symptoms of being overwhelmed, helpless and concerned about her son’s safety in the future’.

Amid all the chaos and violence of Peter’s presence in the home, what most concerned Beverley was that she did not know if he was going to be all right in the future. She did not know who was going to care for him when she could no longer, and the uncertainty was a heavy weight that she carried around every day. This uncertainty when confronted by the complete lack of government support is a familiar feeling in the disability community, as I have already touched on many times in this place.

I cannot count how many times a parent has mentioned murder-suicide plans to me since I started this job alone. Thankfully, none of them have followed through yet, as far as I am aware, but that is the level of desperation which pervades some of the families of people with a disability, and it could only be a couple of steps further into the well of desperation before they join Beverley Eitzen in committing an action which should never seem like a solution. However, for some of these people, this action can seem like the only solution.

This situation is not specific to Beverley Eitzen. Every person in the disability community is different, of course, but there is a common feeling among some out there that there is no other option. There is no-one else to care for their children, their sister, their brother, their mother or their uncle—their loved one. There is no-one else to do it. There is not even anyone else to help them do it. So, when and if they decide they can no longer provide the right care, the only choice will be to kill the person they care for. This is, of course, not something we should ever accept.

It is time for the government and for all of us to face this reality and take responsibility for it. It is not all right that people with disability are more likely to die because their carers are forced into poor mental health, and it should not be okay that carers are put under this kind of insurmountable strain. It is our job as a society to stop this and to stop it immediately, and there are steps that we as a society and our government can take immediately.

Peter Eitzen’s case once gain reminds me of the desperate and undeniable need for a South Australian disability services system that is needs-based as opposed to diagnosis-based. I have heard countless stories of people, especially children, who are currently ineligible for certain services they need due to the fact that they do not have the so-called correct diagnosis: a child who cannot get enough support because they have a ‘behaviour and language disorder’ as opposed to autism; a lady who has trouble finding someone to fund her wheelchair because she does not yet have an official diagnosis for the condition with which she has lived for some five years; a lady who is boomeranged between the disability and health departments while she struggles to obtain a sufficient supply of oxygen and overnight support.

This is an unfair and quite unnecessary trap for these people to be caught in. Yes, of course, we do need checks and balances, so to speak, around eligibility for disability services, but it is clear that the current system is shutting out many of the people who need it the most. Imagine, just for example’s sake, Mr President, if you went to the chemist to get some pain relief tablets for a headache but were told that you were not eligible for Panadol because you had only a headache and not a migraine. This is, of course, ridiculous.

If you exhibit the symptoms, you should receive the treatment. So must the disability system move toward being more needs-based than diagnosis-based, and this is the first measure I would recommend to this government to help stop what happened to the Eitzen family from ever happening again. If the disability services system were structured that way, it is likely that Peter would have received the services he required to live life to its full potential, despite the fact that he was never given an official diagnosis. Peter Eitzen might still be with us today, instead of being forced into his all-too-early grave.

The second tip of the iceberg, so to speak, is the issue of Beverley Eitzen’s mental illness. I am at a complete loss, as I am sure we all are, to understand how it is that Beverley Eitzen got to the point where should could even entertain the notion of taking the life of her own child. But as my office has heard, as the Supreme Court has heard, and as members would have heard through the media in recent times, the stress and strain of life as an unpaid family carer played an undeniable role in this.

I have spoken many times about the hardships family carers in this state face, and I think I have painted a sufficient picture for this particular debate, so I will not elaborate on this issue too much more, but I would like to remind honourable members of the fact that family carers are currently saving this government time and money by undertaking this work, with only a very small carers payment and the hope that their family member will have an adequate standard of living as a reward. It is because of this that the government owes family carers, as an overdue debt and a matter of ineffable urgency, to take steps to allow them to enjoy their right to good physical and mental health as they continue to save this government time and money by undertaking this work.

What is clear here is the need for ongoing, reliable and holistic support in this regard. I am told that Beverley now has quite a good network of support around her following the recent court case. However, if she had had that support around her before deciding to take the tragic actions that she took, it is entertainable that this whole situation may have been preventable.

Networking is an ineffably important part of the carer community in South Australia. However, one of the issues, I think, is that many family carers only have other family carers of people with disabilities as their support network and this can create quite a small, closed-in culture, if you like, which can result in a closed mind, in terms of objectivity about one’s situation. I think the more objective and holistic supports we have in place for family carers, the better.

To that end, I would like to make special mention of organisations such as the Adelaide Hills Carer Wellness Centre which works to provide unbiased objective supports to family carers at times when they need it most, and I would encourage the government to allow such organisations to carry on their work well into the future. I would love to see the establishment of further organisations all across Australia to allow for every carer to have the support they need to carry out their very important job.

I would also love to see the establishment of mental health checks for family carers of people living with disability carried out by caseworkers. Just as a caseworker to a person with a disability will occasionally pop in on that person in their home, if you like, to see how they are going. I would love for that support also to extend to their family carer. I would love for perhaps a mental health expert to be able to accompany the caseworker to really discuss what the carer’s needs are and really assess where they are at, so that we can find the early warning signs of such mental illness as in Beverley Eitzen’s case and stop that because, as the saying goes, early prevention is key to prevention and cure.

As I said, this situation is not unique to the Eitzen family. Tragically, it is too late for Peter and this government must act before it is too late for another family, and another, and another. We cannot keep on forever. It is time now to hand down the rescue rope. Please join me in beseeching the government to react to this emergency which sits bubbling below the surface of the South Australian community.

To that end, I would encourage honourable members to help me campaign for the measures that I have mentioned in this speech and also any further measure that could provide for better mental and physical health for those wonderful unpaid family carers in our state. In fact this should not be an issue which is, as I just said, bubbling beneath the surface of our community. This should be something that is front and centre of our attention as a society and front and centre of this government’s thinking and planning.