Oz:Mentally ill woman wrongly locked up in detention centre

Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 08:28 am
My sister lost her mind, and Australia lost its heart
February 7, 2005/SMH

Cornelia Rau, a mentally ill Australian woman, spent months locked in an immigration detention centre. Her sister, Chris Rau & brother-in-law describe her living hell.

Cornelia Rau

For the past 10 months Cornelia has been locked up - for six in a Brisbane prison and four in South Australia's Baxter detention centre for illegal immigrants. Her crimes: having a mental illness, giving authorities false identities and speaking a foreign language.

She had discharged herself from Manly Hospital's psychiatric unit last March and disappeared. The NSW police had been looking for her since August. We feared her dead, and the worst part was not knowing how, where or why. On Thursday night we learnt she was in Baxter (detention centre). Parts of the mystery were solved, only to raise more questions.

John Howard promised an inquiry yesterday but refused to apologise, citing legal reasons. But one question we can answer for the Government is the litigation one: our parents definitely do not intend to sue and will write privately to the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone. Now it is the Government's turn to provide some answers.
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 08:38 am
Howard orders inquiry into Rau case
By Andra Jackson
February 7, 2005/the AGE

Prime Minister John Howard yesterday said an inquiry would be held into how a mentally ill permanent Australian resident came to be held in an immigration detention for 10 months.

He bluntly refused to issue an apology to the woman, Cornelia Rau, or her family. Her sister, Chris, believes the experience may have worsened Cornelia's schizophrenia.

Ms Rau's family suffered for 10 months believing she must be dead while she was in Brisbane's women's prison and then Baxter detention centre as "a suspected non-citizen".

Mr Howard said her detention was "regrettable" and gave the reason for not apologising as the need to be cautious in "a litigious society". He was responding on Channel Nine's Sunday program to the news that the 39-year-old former Qantas flight attendant had escaped from a psychiatric hospital and "disappeared" into immigration detention for 10 months.

Opposition Leader Kim Beazley said an independent inquiry should determine whether the case was unique.

"It is a terrible story and it does put a question mark in your mind over the character of the care and the character of understanding what's going on inside the minds of people in the detention centres that would permit something like this to go on for so long," he said yesterday.

Speaking on Channel Ten's Meet The Press, Mr Beazley said Ms Rau could well have a compensation claim against the Immigration Department.

The Australian Democrats indicated they would seek a judicial inquiry into her case and a Senate inquiry into mental health services.

"State and federal governments have allowed our prisons and our detention centres to become the new psychiatric asylums," Democrats leader Lyn Allison said.

The NSW Refugee Action Coalition has called for a royal commission into Ms Rau's detention and for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone to resign "for allowing such a brutal episode to take place in one of her detention centres".

Ms Rau escaped from Manly Hospital in March and made her way to Coen in Northern Queensland where Aborigines, concerned for her welfare, took her to police.

Queensland police say they were unable to identify her, even though she was listed as missing with NSW police. They handed her over to immigration authorities after she gave an alias of "Anna" and spoke some German, leading them to suspect she was "an illegal non-citizen".

During her detention she was subjected to physical restraint in Brisbane prison. At Baxter she was isolated for a week and then locked in her room for 18 hours a day, despite exhibiting highly disturbed behaviour.

After her family found her through an Age article about a German-speaking woman held in Baxter, she was transferred to Adelaide's Glenside psychiatric hospital on Friday.

Yesterday, hospital staff told the family she was refusing to accept she was Cornelia Rau, insisting she was "Anna Schmidt". "Cornelia is still not here mentally even though physically she is in hospital," her sister Chris said. She said her parents would write to Senator Vanstone to convey their feelings about their daughter's treatment.

Mr Howard said he did not know how her detention occurred, but considered the episode unsatisfactory. He said he would talk to Senator Vanstone today about the case.

Premier Steve Bracks yesterday said Senator Vanstone owed Australians an explanation for the episode. "She should fully explain what has happened, what will happen in the future and what remedies will be put in place."

March 17
Discharged herself from Manly Hospital where she had been receiving treatment for schizophrenia.

March 31
Taken by a group of concerned Aborigines in northern Queensland to police after being found wandering in a disoriented state.
April 5
Handed to Immigration authorities and taken to Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre where she remained for the next six months.
Family files a missing person's report with the NSW Police.
Transferred to Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia.
February 3
Family reads a newspaper report about a mystery German woman being held in Baxter and contacts NSW Police Missing Persons Unit who use a photograph of the woman held at Baxter to confirm she is Cornelia Rau.
February 4
Cornelia Rau is discharged from Baxter and taken to Glenside Psychiatric Hospital in Adelaide.
February 6
Ms Rau remains at the hospital in a delusional state, believing she is a German woman called Anna Schmidt.

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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 08:47 am
The flawed system that failed 'Anna'
Federal politics
Michelle Grattan
February 6, 2005/Sunday AGE

Australia's detention regime is endless in its ability to shock. And the same goes for federal immigration ministers.

Amanda Vanstone's response to the revelation that a seriously mentally ill woman, Cornelia Rau, had been incarcerated in Baxter and elsewhere for months, on suspicion that she was an illegal immigrant, is extraordinary. Vanstone knows the Government is on the back foot. But she is defiant.

Let us consider what the minister says about the case of "Anna" as she called herself, before her identity was established (no thanks to the Government).

Anticipating attacks, Vanstone condemns in advance as "opportunistic" criticism of those who "have worked to care for the woman and determine her identity".

Presumably she means that critics will use the case to back up earlier reflections on the detention system or to make a political point. That's irrelevant - strong criticism of the handling of this case is called for. The failure to identify the woman quickly, or to properly diagnose her condition, is an appalling indictment of the system.

Refugee advocate Pamela Curr, alerted by Baxter detainees that the woman was behaving in a highly disturbed way, contacted Vanstone's office in December. She was given the answer she has become used to -"we don't discuss individual cases". In January she made another call, talking to Paul Giles, one of Vanstone's advisers, to get the same response.

It was only after the story was reported by The Age's Andra Jackson last week that the identity of the woman was established - by her own family realising that this was probably the relative for whom they had been searching for months.
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 01:44 pm
Go Michelle!
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 01:58 pm
Of course this sort of bureaucratic snafu should not happen--no question, no argument.

On the other hand, I've dealt with a handful of schizophrenics (Mr. Noddy's family has many fringes) and know that because of mental illness, schizophrenics do not always act in their own best interests.
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 06:13 pm
The point is, Noddy, this woman was wrongly held in an immigration detention centre of 10 months, while being on the "missing persons" list the whole time. There are have been many questions raised as a result of her experience, including:

- Communication between state police & the immigration authorities in Australia. Don't they speak with each other?
- The fact that she was detained for 10 months on assumptions about her nationality. We recently had a very well publicized case were a family was expelled from Australia, were they had sought asylum, on the basis disputed nationality.
- Her totally inappropriate treatment (as a mentally ill person) by the detention centre. She was kept in isolation for most of each day & obviously did not receive the medical help she needed. Is this how traumatized asylum seekers are treated in these institutions?
- Do people, of whatever nationality, lose all civil rights while in detention? What if they have be wrongly detained?
- The blanket refusal of the Prime Minister & the Immigration Minister to admit any fault in the system that allowed this to happen. They've even refused to say sorry!

.. & other concerns. (I wish I had more time to respond today!)

This is turning into a huge scandal. It is not just about this woman. It's a can or worms for the government!
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 06:45 pm
Ms. Olga--

Yes, the Australian government has some answering to do.

A big part of the problem is lack of money to pay competent people.

Still, this woman discharged herself and stopped taking her meds, rendering herself unable to cope in the outside world.

There are parallels--but not absolute correspondences--with the problem of a drunken driver who has chosen to drink and get behind the wheel. She made a choice--an uninformed choice, but a legally permitted choice, to stop taking her meds and take her chances in an unsheltered world.

There's lots of blame and many places to put it.

I repeat, I agree this should not have happened. I agree the government is responsible and has some hard questions to answer. So do the government workers involved--from the top down and the bottom up.
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 07:05 pm
The main concern for me, Noddy, is that this woman is not an isolated case. This, apparently, is common treatment in Australia's detention centres. Many of the "illegals" detained often are later recognized as genuine asylum seekers. God knows what they've gone through in the process! The detention centres sound not dissimilar to Guantanamo Bay to me. And the government's response to an Australian citizen, recently released from at Guantanamo Bay without charge after 3 years detention is remarkably similar. No apology, no responsibility.

And here's the latest on Anna from our Immigration Minister:

Fair to think Rau unlawful: Vanstone
February 7, 2005 - 8:14AM/the AGE

It was understandable authorities would think mentally ill Australian woman Cornelia Rau was an unlawful citizen, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said today.

Ms Rau, a 39-year-old permanent resident who came to Australia when she was a baby, was released from Baxter immigration detention centre in South Australia on Friday.

She had spent six months in a Queensland jail before being sent to the centre, where she spent four months after telling authorities she was a German woman named Anna Schmidt.

That was despite the former Qantas flight attendant being listed as missing in August last year.

The federal government announced it would investigate the incident, but Ms Vanstone today said it was "a pretty fair understanding" authorities would believe she maybe an unlawful citizen.

"Ms Rau clearly had a pre-existing mental condition, but that of course was not known to everybody else," she told the Seven Network today.

"She left a mental health facility in NSW and somehow got herself to Queensland where she came to the attention of authorities.

"My advice is she claimed that she was German ... (she) spoke German, said she was German, said she was a visitor, said she had no friends and family and had with her a stolen passport.

"So it's a pretty fair understanding that both police and immigration would think this person maybe an unlawful citizen.

"Ms Rau stuck to the story of who she was, where she was born, that she was adopted of parents in Germany consistently."

An evaluation of Ms Rau in Brisbane before she went to Baxter stated she was behaving "oddly" but was not mentally ill, Senator Vanstone said.

"She had an evaluation in Brisbane before she came to Baxter, that evaluation came with her and it said that she didn't exhibit criteria ... for a mental illness, that she was behaving oddly but ... not mentally ill," she said.

"Nonetheless, as soon as she got to Baxter, as she was seeing psychologists and the GP in the first month, it was recommended that she have a psychiatric visit."

She was seen and it was recommended she be assessed, Senator Vanstone said.

"From the time in November, which was about a month after she arrived when she'd been seen by the visiting psychiatrist, we were in discussions with the South Australian mental authorities," Senator Vanstone said.

"This isn't a perfect case, I don't know what's gone wrong. I do know that we were desperately trying to find out who this person was."

Extensive inquiries were made into Ms Rau's identity through Queensland police, German authorities in Australia, and government departments, Senator Vanstone said.

"We gave the details that she'd given us and the photo, but it may be that at the time we did that - which was very early on - she wasn't yet registered as a missing person," she said.

Ms Rau was listed as a missing person in August, before her transfer to Baxter in October last year.

"It can happen ... that someone with a mental illness who has disappeared in the past is not always listed the day they first disappear as a missing person," Senator Vanstone said.

"We did a lot to check her identity."

But Senator Vanstone stopped short of saying she was happy with procedure in the case.

"I didn't say that, I said we're having an inquiry," she said.

"What you can be assured of is that as soon as she got to Baxter, despite the fact there was an assessment by mental health professionals in Queensland that she didn't exhibit a diagnostic mental illness ... within just over a month she saw a psychiatrist, and from that point on there were negotiations with the South Australian mental health authorities."

It was not known whether the inquiry into the matter would be public, she said.

She stressed Ms Rau's right to privacy, saying the fact she had a mental illness did not negate that right.

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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 07:12 pm
Mental illness rife at detention centre: nurse
February 7, 2005 - 10:47AM/SMH

Mental illness was rife at the Woomera detention centre, but went untreated because management wanted to hide it, a former nurse at the centre said today.

Wayne Lynch said he worked with many mentally ill asylum seekers at the now mothballed centre in outback South Australia.

Many of the detainees were depressed and suicidal, but management refused to allow them psychiatric treatment outside the facility, Mr Lynch said.

"I wrote letter after letter about the mental health of certain refugees and I actually feared for their lives and thought they were going to commit suicide," he told ABC radio.

"But the bottom line was I was told we had to manage them in-house and on numerous occasions I was told I was no longer to make contact, in a sense, with the outside world - that I wasn't to consult with psychiatrists or psychologists in Adelaide."

Mr Lynch said the cost of escort guards was a reason management prevented such outside medical treatment for detainees, but a culture of secrecy was the main reason.

"We had all of these mentally ill people in detention who were being medicated, and sedated, and incarcerated... and I was prevented from actually getting support for them outside of the detention centre," he said.

"My strong impression was that management simply did not want people to know what the detention experience was doing to refugees."

Asylum seekers were subjected to inhumane treatment in the centres and that was enough to affect any person's state of mind, Mr Lynch said.

"I do believe these centres are driving people mad.

"You take away their privileges, you incarcerate people, you humiliate them, you physically and emotionally assault them, deprive them of the very basics of life - anyone is going to go mad in that situation."

Mr Lynch's comments followed revelations that Cornelia Rau, a 39-year-old permanent Australian resident from Sydney, was wrongly held at the Baxter detention centre since October last year.

The former Qantas flight attendant was listed as missing in August last year and is mentally ill. She was released on Friday and taken to an Adelaide psychiatric hospital.

The federal government has ordered an inquiry into the mix-up, amid claims Ms Rau was subjected to degrading treatment at Baxter.

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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 07:23 pm
Sydney Morning Herald readers' comments on Anna Rau's treatment:

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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 07:47 pm
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Mr Stillwater
Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 07:50 pm
Nothing that couldn't be cured by a good trip to Egypt for some extra-judicial 'questioning'. It would be f*cking Queensland, hey?!

'Sarge, we got us a wanderer'
'Is it an Abo?'
'Nope - speaking some forink words though'
'Must be one of them terrahrists - lock em up!!'
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Merry Andrew
Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 08:00 pm
The really disturbing thing is that it took 10 months to figure out that, while she probably does belong in custody, that custody should not be a facility for suspected criminals. As MsOlga has already said, don't the police and the immigration authorities speak to each other? She hadn't diappeared into the blue: there was a missing person report on her. And, to top it off, this situation might well have continued for another 10 months or more if her family hadn't been alert and, to some extent, lucky.
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Reply Sun 6 Feb, 2005 08:03 pm
Last Update: Monday, February 7, 2005. 12:44pm (AEDT)

Mentally ill Cornelia Rau was held in detention for 10 months. (ABC TV)

South Australia's Public Advocate, Jonathan Harley, says he spent more than two months trying to get authorities at the Baxter detention centre to look into the case of Cornelia Rau.

Mr Harley says Ms Rau's plight came to his attention in December last year.

He says he was met with silence from the Department of Immigration and officials at Baxter and was forced to threaten legal action before they acted.

Mr Harley says officials at Baxter did not act when he contacted them because as a state official he had no jurisdiction to intervene.

He says the attitude from department officials towards him was appalling.

"Because they are not accountable to anybody I can honestly say ... I was in private practice before I was appointed here - but in 40 years I've never dealt with such arrogant public servants in all my life," he said.

"I was thinking of initiating proceedings as a guardian in the Federal Court to seek orders to have Cornelia brought down for assessment in Glenside."

Meanwhile, a prominent Adelaide lawyer says Ms Rau's case has finally brought to light the extreme problems with mental health inside Australian detention centres.

Lawyer Claire O'Connor says it is unfortunate that it has taken the plight of an Australian citizen to highlight the issue.

She says one of her clients is an Iranian asylum seeker, who is suffering a severe mental illness and has attempted suicide more than 20 times while in Baxter.

Ms O'Connor says the man received no adequate treatment while in detention.

She says it took months of court appearances before the Commonwealth would allow her client to be examined by an independent doctor.

"The term that the Commonwealth lawyers used was that the standard of care for mental illness at Baxter on the ground is excellent and if there's anything wrong with him they would know," she said.

"By the time we finally got them to concede to get a doctor at the Royal Adelaide to examine him, he was transferred immediately to Glenside."

Independent Council For Refugee Advocacy spokeswoman Marion Le also believes there could be many more people in Australian detention centres with mental illness than first thought.

Ms Le says detainees should be independently assessed on their mental health.

"I mean we all know the instances of self harm and we see people being demonised because they slit their wrists or sew up their mouths but in fact that's very clear evidence of psychiatric disorder, mental disability," she said.

"I think the problem ... was that some of the people working there have become so used to this sort of mental derangement that they didn't see her as any different."

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Health Minister, Christopher Pyne, has criticised News South Wales and Queensland authorities.

Mr Pyne says he finds it extraordinary that Ms Rau could walk through both states as an officially listed missing person and no authority checked that list.

"I am concerned that a person in a mental institution in New South Wales can be capable of simply walking out the door and then ending up in far north Queensland, without at any point the Queensland or New South Wales police forces or mental health services being able to find somebody who they should have been taking care of - that I think is extraordinary," he said.
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Reply Mon 7 Feb, 2005 04:02 am
I am most concerned:

a. That the mental health facilities available to a highly at risk population do not seem able to detect a severe psychosis - either in the prison, or the detention systems.

b. If this experience was so traumatic for this woman that - as Louise Newman - a highly respected NSW psychiatrist - says, she may never fully recover - what are we doing subjecting ANYONE to that experience?
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Reply Mon 7 Feb, 2005 03:01 pm
Why indeed, Deb.
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Reply Mon 7 Feb, 2005 03:18 pm
Today's AGE editorial:

When detention begets its own madness
February 8, 2005

The 10-month incarceration of Cornelia Rau is a sad reflection on the society Australia has become.

Cornelia Rau was not simply failed by the system but by a community and a Government that have become quick to condemn and too ready to incarcerate. Ms Rau's crime was to be found wandering in the bush, speaking a foreign tongue and pretending to be someone else. That she has been an Australian resident since childhood is largely irrelevant. Far more pertinent is the fact that she suffers from mental illness. The systematic failure of police, health and immigration authorities - seemingly at every turn - to identify her and her condition beggars belief. Never mind claims by Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone that "we were desperately trying to find out who this person was". The fact is that Cornelia Rau ended up in immigration detention for 10 months, firstly in a Brisbane jail and then the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. She was released not through the efforts of Senator Vanstone or her staff but because a story by an Age journalist last Monday about an unidentified German-speaking detainee was seen by her family.

Among the disadvantages of a federal system of government is that agencies such as police and health departments are replicated from state to state and from state to Commonwealth. If the procedures that allow for information about missing persons to be passed from one jurisdiction to the next fail, then inevitably some cases fall through the cracks. In the case of Cornelia Rau, despite wide publicity of her status as a missing person including an article in at least one South Australian newspaper while she was in Baxter, no connection was made. Ms Rau was evidently failed by the authorities. It is only proper that a full, independent inquiry should be held into those circumstances to discover precisely why.

More troubling than these failures, however, is the apparent shift in community attitudes in Australia that allows for people to vanish into a system in which their basic rights also disappear. Immigration detainees are not criminals. Yet in many ways they occupy a position in which legal, physical and emotional wellbeing is less certain than that of convicted prisoners. The processes of dehumanising the alleged terrorist Mamdouh Habib at Guantanamo Bay and the alleged illegal immigrant Cornelia Rau in Australia differ only by degree. In pursuit of a hard line on illegal immigration, the Government has allowed for a regime of detention in which children have been imprisoned, detainees have sewn their lips together in protest and the mentally ill have been incarcerated. This is the hard, uncaring face of government acting in the name of the people of Australia. This is an inhumane system that strips people of dignity and rights in the name of border protection. Many Australians will be left wondering how many more Cornelia Raus languish in detention or how many other detainees have been driven to mental despair? The time has come for the Government to be called to account on mandatory detention, not just for the sake of Ms Rau and her family but for all Australians bewildered and outraged by her treatment.
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