Monday, 9 September 2013

Mayumarri: Retreat for abuse victims 'cult-like'

BY: RICHARD GUILLIATT

THE national charities watchdog is investigating allegations of mismanagement and dangerous practices at a Christian counselling organisation whose patrons include Rudd government minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

The Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission has interviewed several former employees of Heal For Life Foundation who allege that adults and children are being exposed to bizarre and damaging counselling methods at the foundation's rural NSW retreat, Mayumarri.

The former staff claim vulnerable young women attending the retreat for sexual-assault counselling are placed in the care of unqualified volunteers and exposed to a "cult-like" atmosphere that has triggered psychiatric disorders requiring hospitalisation. Mayumarri was established in 1999 by the child-abuse campaigner Liz Mullinar, who is chief executive of Heal For Life Foundation.

The retreat has attracted high-profile support from both sides of politics but has been the subject of complaints to health authorities for at least a decade. The Weekend Australian has spoken to eight recently departed staff from Mayumarri who claim poorly trained staff at the centre are permitting bizarre claims of abuse to spread in "virus-like" fashion.

Annie Nothnagel, who quit as a volunteer at the centre in April last year, said severely psychiatrically disturbed young women were violently self-harming there and often required hospitalisation as a result of poorly supervised counselling.

Ms Nothnagel said she had a breakdown after leaving Mayumarri and was herself hospitalised for 17 weeks.

"Very vulnerable and very mentally unwell young girls should not be in that place," she said.

The former training co-ordinator at Mayumarri, Di Frost, claimed she quit in April after becoming extremely concerned at the inadequate training and supervision of volunteers.

"They're exposed to people who are recovering bizarre and extreme memories of abuse, and there is cross-contamination in which carers themselves recover memories that can lead to very serious psychological disability," she said.

Ms Frost said about 20 staff and volunteers had left Heal For Life since 2011 and several lodged complaints with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission.

She said she had also alerted the Healthcare Complaints Commission of NSW.

Graham Oborn, a Hunter-region businessman who was once deputy chairman and a major financial sponsor of Mayumarri, said he raised his own concerns with the ACNC and the Heal For Life board and was frustrated by their inaction.

Ms Mullinar, Heal For Life's chief executive, has won awards for her work as a child-abuse campaigner and Mayumarri received a $600,000 donation from the mining company Xstrata in 2009.

Former staff at the centre have complained about its methods since 2003, when the NSW Health Department withdrew funding after a departmental report criticised the way it was run.

The chairman of Heal For Life's board, Rod Phillips, said the organisation had commissioned an independent review of the recent complaints, which recommended only minor changes and was "very positive" overall. In a written statement, which he said was authorised by the entire board, he said Heal For Life could not comment on the ACNC investigation but took all complaints seriously and was still finalising its internal review.

Mr Phillips, who is Ms Mullinar's husband, denied that an unusual number of staff had left.

"Some of the volunteers and staff members who have left over the past two years were asked to leave by the board and/or management because they were not complying with the standard of behaviour Heal For Life expects from those involved in its programs and one staff member was made redundant because of a lack of funding," he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon, the federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, became a patron of Heal For Life in 2009, when the organisation was called Mayumarri.

Mr Fitzgibbon said he was unaware of the allegations about Heal For Life.

Heal For Life's website names the actress Melissa George as another patron. George, speaking through her agent, said she had not been a patron for "many years".

The Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission would not comment on whether an investigation was taking place.

The Australian – 7 September 2013