Autistic fire survivor 'let down'

Last updated 05:00 04/12/2012
Otto Rapihana
TREASURED: Otto Rapihana was a well-respected student at his school
Otto Rapihana
BLAZE: The fire in Glendene that killed Otto Rapihana.

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The parents of an autistic man who survived a fatal fire in Glendene have spoken out about their son's isolation, despair and how the Ministry of Health continuously lets him down.

The couple, who declined to be named, said their 25-year-old son had been left traumatised by the fire that killed Otto Rapihana, 20, on November 9. Rapihana was locked in a bathroom and could not escape.

"He is really restless and we have no idea what's going on inside his mind because he's unable to express himself," the man's father said.

"We were told by a neighbour who witnessed the fire that he was shouting 'Otto, Otto' and that he was trying to get back in and save him."

He was being cared for by a Caregroup Ltd employee on the night of the fire because his father was coming down with the flu. The employee was not at the property when the fire started.

The parents were not told their son was one of two autistic men being looked after at the property. They said had they known, they would not have left him there because their son had high needs.
The man's mother said the night of the fire was devastating for her family.

"When I first saw our son in hospital I felt like the world was falling down around me. His face was all blackened like a miner and there were red patches where he was burnt."
No charges have been laid over the incident but his father wants the Health Ministry to implement stricter rules, and to license caregivers to help improve protection for people like his son.

He also wants psychological support for autistic people who have experienced trauma.

"His medical care at the hospital was very good and physically he is making a good recovery but they didn't have some experts to talk to him - he needs psychological help to rehabilitate him."
The couple are both staying home from work because their son is unable to settle in with any of his new carers.

The man's father said there needed to be more respite care available to adults with complex needs.

"Once they are over 21 there is no clear support, especially for people with high needs."

He said parents ended up privately employing carers because there were no other options.

"There must be acute respite care readily accessible. If we are sick or for some reason we can't take care of our son there needs to be somewhere to go."
Ministry of Health group manager of disability support services Toni Atkinson said the ministry expressed its sympathy to the family.

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Atkinson said the ministry's 2012-2013 budget for respite care was $52 million and it had increased in the past five years.
The ministry did not answer questions about how autistic needs were being addressed and why there was no respite care service for people with high needs.

It also did not answer questions about whether it had plans to ensure that all disability carers were registered.

Caregroup Ltd managing director Warren Barclay did not respond to questions.

- Fairfax Media

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