It was 37 years ago that Ron Fenton was shot in the back of the head in the line of duty whilst working for Victoria Police, where 37 bullet fragments would stay lodged in his brain.

These weren’t the only challenges Ron would experience in his lifetime. He was bitten by a man claiming to have HIV, he was asked to recover a baby’s corpse from Williamstown beach, and he witnessed the everyday tragedies we experience as police.

Victoria Police number 18343’s 40-year Victoria Police career was particularly eventful, and unfortunately, very damaging.

Despite all of these events, Ron’s long battle with Post Traumatic Stress Injury (or what you’ll hear me call ‘PTSI’) truly began when he was assaulted by a notorious criminal outside a Werribee nightclub in 2008. The offender threatened to “get a gun and do a better job than Kai”. This was a reference to the man who murdered a security guard in 1984, before opening fire onto Ron’s police car in Beaumaris, where he would almost die.

He was the man responsible for those 37 bullet fragments in Ron’s skull.

During 2017, and as a result of Ron’s declining mental state, Yogi came into Ron’s life. Courtesy of the Defence Bank’s Defence Community Dogs program – and Ron being eligible as a previous serving member of the Army Reserves.

Yogi, the chocolate Labrador, would change Ron’s life.

Yogi was rescued from a pound and sent to Bathurst Prison in NSW where he was trained by Benni, a prisoner serving time for drugs offences. Benni met Ron a few times to understand his medical issues, his triggers and he trained Yogi to respond to Ron’s triggers when they arose.

I’ll talk about Defence Dogs more later.

Yogi was taught to sense Ron’s emotions including turning the light on at night when he was having night terrors, putting a paw on him when he was anxiously bouncing his leg and asking him to play ball when Ron’s mood dipped.

Before getting Yogi, Ron attempted suicide five times; something he was very open about. He was using 17 psychotropic drugs daily to curb his PTSI symptoms and had been admitted to hospital many times where he would stay for a week or two.

Although Yogi was funded through the Defence Bank, the ongoing costs of maintaining Yogi were met by Ron.  To alleviate the financial burden, Ron applied to have Yogi’s costs claimed through WorkSafe as a legitimate medical expense related to his workplace induced PTSI.  He said “I figured I should ask for WorkCover to pay for my dog, because he is my medication”.

Ron made a claim to WorkCover and was optimistic where he described there was ‘head nodding’ at the meeting he had with WorkSafe, but 3 weeks later he received a letter in the mail: a ‘Rejection of Claim’. They cited a lack of evidence behind ‘companion dogs’ for this decision. But Yogi isn’t a companion dog; he’s a trained psychiatric assistance dog.

Then, in the words of Ron “Imagine my surprise when, I get woken by my Barrister Fiona Ryan by phone yesterday morning. She’s at the Pre-hearing Conference between barristers for both sides. WorkSafe have walked in with a prepared offer. A set cash amount as recompense for past expenditure, nothing going forward, closure of the claim, and a Non-Disclosure Agreement.”

Needless to say, what questionable behaviour by WorkSafe.

In typical Ron fashion, he made it clear that he wouldn’t be agreeing to any NDAs under any circumstances. After much back-and-forth, a deal was struck.   WorkSafe agreed to pay for Yogi’s expenses from the day Ron bought him home until the day that Yogi would cease to perform his duties.  WorkSafe also agreed to cover the costs for a replacement dog, as long as the dog came from an Accredited Provider.

Ron’s lawyer Kathy Wilson said:

“On the day before it was listed, WorkCover offered us everything Ron was asking for (which he accepted) so there was no reason to proceed and [therefore] WorkCover avoided the precedent.”

What a coincidence.

Yogi’s Law was supposed to have been formally created, but due to settling out of court, it wasn’t.

This now means, if you don’t go down the path of seeking to be the test case in court, you must access WorkSafe’s “Non-established, New and Emerging Treatments and Services” (or NeNETS) policy to seek compensation for psychiatric assistance dog costs.

In concluding Ron’s story though, I’ll warn that it does have a bittersweet ending.

Ron passed away earlier this year from cancer. He came here to Parliament three weeks before he passed to talk about getting funding for the Defence Community Dogs program in Victoria. This would allow more dogs available for those with mental health issues like Ron. I pledged that I would do everything I could to make access to assistance dogs easier for people with mental health issues, especially PTSI.

In fact, I have made budget submissions to the Government each and every year since I have been elected to have the Defence Dogs program funded in Victoria.  I will be doing the same this year and hope that this vital and evidence-based program is finally funded.

Whilst my motion today doesn’t refer to the Defence Community Dogs program, I just once again want to take an opportunity to promote its triple benefits.

It’s a win for the dog who is rescued, a win for the inmate with a 0% recidivism rate for those who take part in the dog training program and a win for our veterans. Having it funded would provide for a new stream of trained dogs and my hope would be that it expands to all frontline workers.

In his last act of selflessness before he died, Ron asked Benni if he would like to take back Yogi when Ron passed away from liver cancer. Benni, of course, said yes.

Benni, who now runs a successful plumbing business, took Yogi to his home in New South Wales where he is enjoying and relaxing in his new life.

Such was the greatness of the man and his commitment to the cause, Ron was also recently awarded an OAM, a Medal of the Order of Australia, for his work in mental health.

This story gives me goosebumps every time.

*PAUSE*

PTSI DEFINITION

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is known by many who suffer from the condition as an ‘injury’, hence the acronym ‘PTSI’. It’s less stigmatising and recognises the biological impact PTSI can have on someone. PTSI can rear its ugly head months or years after an incident or series of incidents. It can consist of night terrors, aggressive or emotional outbursts, trouble sleeping, flashbacks, mood swings, trouble concentrating, anxiousness, guilt and suspicion.

On terminology, I understand that the Government can’t just decide to change the term from PTSD to PTSI.

What I’m asking through this motion, is that the Government will acknowledge this term of PTSI as the preferred option by sufferers and to use it where appropriate.

Code 9 spokesperson Mark Thomas said “Having it renamed PTSI would be massively helpful. Far too many first responders do not recognise it as an injury…”.

 

FRONTLINE WORKERS AND PTSI

Having worked on the frontline, I find it unsurprising, but still worrying, that our emergency service workers experience high rates of PTSI.

According to Australian Emergency Services, PTSI rates are directly impacted by “dose”, or the number of exposures to potentially traumatic events. Routine and repeated exposure during police work means the risk of PTSI in our police is as high as 20% – far beyond the 1-3% prevalence in the general population.[1]

I would also like to make it clear that my push for access to claims for psychiatric assistance dogs is not at the expense of other types of therapies. These dogs aren’t intentioned to replace any Evidence-Based Psychotherapy, but to complement them. What works for some may not work for others.

My contribution is also not intentioned to make the case for psychiatric assistance dogs – I don’t feel I need to.

However, there are several studies that are encouraging for their use. Ron’s anecdote is obviously an incredible one; going from 17 psychotropic drugs each day to one furry friend around the clock.

Further, a recent survey by MindDog Australia (who supply and train dogs for people with psychological issues) found that assistance dogs:

“… decreased the use of psychiatric or other healthcare services in 46% of participants…”

WORKSAFE ISSUES:

I know most of you won’t be surprised by Ron’s experience with WorkSafe as their conduct has been under question for some time.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass has on two occasions (in 2016 and 2019) handed down scathing reports regarding WorkSafe’s dealings with complex claims. These usually require longer-term cover and are generally more costly to WorkSafe.

Reflecting on 500 WorkSafe complaints, Ms Glass in her 2016 report said:

“We found cases in which agents were working the system to delay and deny seriously injured workers the financial compensation they were entitled.”

In 2019, Ms Glass said WorkSafe had not learnt from the 2016 report and that changes still needed to be made to WorkSafe’s culture, despite the State Government agreeing to the 15 recommendations in the earlier report.

In the latter report, she said: “…this is the first time I have launched a fresh investigation into the same issue [and that] WorkSafe complaints were and are particularly painful.”

She further said, shockingly, that “If anything, the evidence strongly suggests that much of the impact of my 2016 report has been to drive these practices underground. Agent staff were told to be careful what they put in writing – in case the Ombudsman sees it.

The 2016 ABC Four Corners story ‘Injury to Insult’  affirms that these problems are ingrained.

Michael Tanner, Principal at National Compensation Lawyers told me:

An injured workers’ journey through the Victorian Workcover system is difficult, tiring and traumatic… [where] legislation and corresponding Regulations are confusing and ever changing.”

He says this unnecessarily creates a greater reliance on Lawyers to fight for the most basic of rights which often leads to protracted litigation and significant stress to some of the most vulnerable people.

Further are his comments:

“The guidelines associated with [assistance dogs] funding remain difficult to interpret and restrictive, further the processing of such a request and time taken to determine [claims] averages approximately 9 months.”

PROBLEM AND SOLUTION

To reiterate the issue, if someone is eligible for WorkCover as a result of psychological injuries, and they would like to access the NeNETS policy for a treatment option such as an assistance dog, they will find that they:

  1. Won’t have a policy to look at to know if they’re eligible for compensation payments or not.
  2. Won’t be able to rely on previous decisions to base their case on (because there’s no precedent).
  3. Will need to engage legal representation – at significant cost – because they will need to engage in the legal process to prove the evidence behind assistance dogs. This is despite others having presented this evidence in the past; and
  4. Will likely wait many months (in some cases, we’ve heard that this wait is beyond nine months) for an outcome of their claim. This is a traumatic and risky process for people who already have mental and physical injuries.

[1] https://ausemergencyservices.com.au/emergency-services/police/one-in-five-police-officers-are-at-risk-of-ptsd-how-do-we-respond/