Former care workers in masturbation claim

Last updated 13:06 21/10/2008
COLIN SMITH/Nelson Mail
COMPLAINT: Nelson care worker Janet Gambell, with her husband John, is speaking out.

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A group of former Nelson support workers has sparked official complaints and investigations after alleging they were ordered to help intellectually impaired people in their care to masturbate.

The company which employed the six women, New Zealand Care, has denied the claims but confirmed it is investigating them.

Five of the six women have resigned since May, largely because of disgust at the orders they said they were told they were contractually obliged to follow.

The group, which is considering laying a complaint with the Health and Disability Commissioner, met the Nelson Mail and Nelson MP Nick Smith and outlined what it described as a push by NZ Care to effectively make the workers prostitutes.

Public Service Association organiser Mike Cunliffe said the union would be laying an official complaint with NZ Care and said a personal grievance case was also possible.

"It would be fascinating to hear their explanation," he said.

Dr Smith said he had lodged an official complaint with Health Minister David Cunliffe and was seeking an independent inquiry into the issue.

"The allegations are so awful that it is difficult to believe they are true. I found all six women to be honest, genuine and totally believable," Dr Smith said.

Ministry of Health health and disability national services directorate deputy director-general Geraldine Woods said the allegations were being taken "very seriously" and, after being alerted to them by NZ Care yesterday, the ministry was seeking assurances that they would be promptly investigated and any appropriate action taken.

Most of the women complaining would not be identified because of fear it would jeopardise their new jobs, but one of them, Janet Gambell of Nelson, said the orders were made during three staff training sessions over the past 18 months.

Most of the sessions were spent discussing the masturbation issue, she said.

The basis for it was "that (clients) have a right to feel like everybody else and if they want to be masturbated, that you are there to do their care", she said.

Staff were told that sex toys should be supplied if needed, said Mrs Gambell, who resigned from NZ Care in May.

None of the six women had masturbated any clients, including the one remaining employee, who is Maori and said she had been told she was exempt on cultural grounds.

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Mrs Gambell said the women were speaking out now because last week her husband, John Gambell, overheard a discussion about the matter and encouraged them to come forward.

Another support worker, who quit working for NZ Care following a course in July, said she had worked with intellectually impaired people for more than 20 years and July was the first time she had been told that masturbation was part of her job description.

Relationship and sexuality consultant Claire Ryan, who took the courses where the masturbation orders were allegedly given, said there was "no truth at all" in the women's claims.

During the courses, ethical issues were raised and it was possible that the women had mistaken general discussion, meant to raise ethical issues, as orders, she said.

She said that her advice around masturbation would be for caregivers not to help, as it was not their role, but she would support hiring sex workers instead.

NZ Care group general manager Donna Mitchell said there was "absolutely no way" that Ms Ryan, who was contracted to the company, had instructed any staff to help clients to masturbate. However, she said she would be investigating the issues, including whether Ms Ryan was teaching appropriate material.

The training sessions were supposed to be on how to appropriately deal with clients' intimate issues, such as bathing and going to the toilet, she said.

NZ Care is contracted by the Ministry of Health to provide disability support services to about 45 people in the Nelson region.

- The Nelson Mail

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