A Christian rehabilitation program has gone into voluntary administration following allegations of abuse. The Esther Foundation was endorsed and supported by several Western Australian politicians, but is now facing a state investigation into its misconduct.
The Foundation issued an apology in March, saying it had undergone a management change and total overhaul since the period of abuse allegations. In their statement, the program said they had suffered “significant reputational damage…Such that our funding base has reduced to the extent that we are likely [to] become insolvent in the very near future, and accordingly under law we cannot continue to operate in this event.”
The Esther Foundation has been operating in Perth since the mid-1990s, and focuses on residential rehabilitation for young women. Numerous women who stayed at the Foundation’s centres from 2003-2019 now allege they were denied food, banned from contacting loved ones, illegally restrained, and faced sexual abuse. Residents were ‘exorcised’ of ‘demons’, and Indigenous residents claim they were told their language and culture were signs of being possessed by the devil.
ABC claims their reporters at 7.30 spoke to over 20 women who had such allegations.
One victim, Chloe Payne, spent time at the Esther Foundation as a 15-year-old in 2009. She said the staff assigned to her did not properly diagnose her or design treatment plans, and gave her wrong medication. “I was physically restrained, I was sat on, I never saw a psychologist, I never saw a psychiatrist.”
Payne became a promotional speaker for the Foundation after her time there, but said the speeches and photoshoots were a smokescreen. She criticised the program’s Biblical methods, “To be so young, to be so ill, [and] to be forced into a program and then given nothing but exorcisms and church, and shoved into rooms of houses with pastors and people that you don’t know to pray for you for hours on end in tongues, speaking in these strange languages — it was very confronting and scary.”
Another former resident, Cara Phillips, said she was forced to shadow Esther Foundation founder and then-director Patricia Lavater. Phillips was not allowed to stray further than two metres from Lavater, and forbidden from asking for anything unless given permission.
Lavater left the Esther Foundation in 2019, but now works with a different Christian rehab program.
The Government’s Role
Multiple Western Australian governments supported the Esther Foundation, verbally and financially. The state’s Departments of Health and Communities confirmed they had referred several women to the Foundation’s program.
As recently as 2018, WA’s then-housing minister called the Esther Foundation “wonderful” and “life-changing”. The Department of Communities provided $200,000 to furnish a Foundation facility in Kalamunda, and the WA Housing Authority paid $790,000 for a property in Maida Vale that it leases to the Foundation.
But current Communities Minister Simone McGurk said the Departments’ mistakes won’t happen again. McGurk was responsible for a parliamentary motion to investigate the allegations against the Esther Foundation. The WA parliament voted in favour of the investigation in early April, and the inquiry is due to be complete by December 1st.
McGurk remarked that “under the current framework the state has very limited oversight of this facility,” and asked the investigation to probe whether “there are ways we can improve existing provisions, or if there are gaps that might need to be addressed.”
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