ACC accused of 'brutal' email attack on sexual abuse victim

17:00, Apr 17 2010

ACC HAS investigated claims staff emailed each other denigrating a sexual abuse victim, describing her as a "mental health nutter".

The Sunday Star-Times has obtained internal emails purportedly written by Accident Compensation Corporation staff in which they are highly critical of the woman, her sexual abuse and family history.

But ACC said on Friday it believed the emails were mostly fakes and was considering laying a complaint with police. The corporation did not say who it believed was behind the emails, and the sexual abuse claimant was adamant they had been leaked to her by a concerned ACC staffer appalled at how she was being treated. The woman's claim is handled by ACC's sensitive claims unit.

And the woman has her own appointment with police on Tuesday, at which she would report a letter she said arrived in the post last week suggesting she was "evil" and should take her own life.

The Star-Times has learned the emails were provided to ACC on March 25 and a top-level inquiry kicked off. ACC appeared to have completed that investigation but wouldn't say what it involved.

"We have seen the supposed `abusive-type emails' and we believe that most, if not all, may be fabricated," said Denise Cosgrove, general manager of ACC's claim management. ACC was "considering whether to refer our concerns to the police for further investigation".

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The bundle of messages includes emails:

Describing the claimant as a "mental health nutter".

Mentioning how one of the woman's children took her own life after learning she was the product of incest. "No wonder, with a birth mother like this one!!" one reads.

Mentioning discussion of a staff member who appeared to be sympathetic with the woman's tragic case: "He thinks she's the most wonderful wonder miracle of the world and testament to rehabilitation and all that other babble. Silly bugger, she must have conned him as well." The email continues: "We could have got rid of her a long time ago, one less nutter on our books."

The Star-Times has been told that in the days after the March 25 hand0over a senior staff member was moved from the sensitive claims unit, but Cosgrove would not discuss that.

The offensive emails are just one piece of a troubled jigsaw that ACC and the woman have been involved with since she lodged a sexual abuse claim in the 1980s after being sexually abused by her father.

The corporation has been forced to apologise to the woman for a string of "failures" involving breaches of their patient code of conduct.

"It is true that in the case of [the victim] there have been several failures by ACC to meet the standards set out in the Code of ACC Claimants' Rights. We are not happy about that, and have apologised to her on each occasion," Cosgrove said.

ACC refused to confirm exactly how many times it had apologised to the woman but the Star-Times has seen at least five letters. One, dated August 2008, sent to the woman by ACC's Sue Walker, related to offensive emails.

"I would like to apologise for the emails sent between Rotorua branch and sensitive claims unit that contained negative information and held inappropriate content," Walker wrote. "Clearly it has left you feeling as though you have not been treated with respect and I regret that it has made you feel this way."

Cosgrove said the woman's case was "most unusual" and was "the result of multiple communication and relationship issues, not all of which are attributable to ACC".

The claimant said the emails had been extremely distressing for her to read and she was further upset to hear ACC had questioned their authenticity.

Her advocate, David Wadsworth, said in all of his time working in the industry he had "never seen such a brutal attack by a government department on an individual who has suffered too much already".

The woman is asking ACC for weekly compensation and treatment charges which relate to a claim, in part, for suffering at Auckland's Centrepoint Community.

Medical reports show the woman fell pregnant to her father three times, the first at age 11. Her father – now dead – was convicted of incest and jailed.

jonathan.marshall@star-times.co.nz

Sunday Star Times