The Esther Foundation, a taxpayer-funded, Pentacostal-linked women’s rehab facility in Perth, will face a WA government inquiry after numerous allegations of abuse and mistreatment including harmful “gay conversion” practices.
The Esther Foundation has operated in Perth since the mid-1990s, with ties to Perth’s Pentecostal churches.
The Christian treatment facility was supposed to offer refuge and counselling to vulnerable women and girls for issues including addiction and mental health.
Before the 2019 election, the Morrison government granted the Esther Foundation $4 million dollars in funding.
But in recent months, over 250 former residents have made serious allegations of abuse and mistreatment, first reported by Crikey.
They include criminal complaints of sexual assault against girls as young as 15, as well as physical and psychological abuse, religious exorcisms and illegal restraints.
Residents have also alleged they were denied food, doctor visits, pain medication, and contact with friends and family.
The women have alleged there were no qualified counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists at the facility.
Instead, the women’s mental health issues, addictions and trauma were treated with religious exorcisms to release “demons”.
Lesbian residents told demons were causing their homosexuality
Residents who were same-sex attracted were told their homosexuality was sin and a lie from the devil. They were subsequently forced to undergo harmful “gay conversion” practices.
In 2009, survivor Kellie Pearce was admitted to Esther House as a teenager after struggling with her mental health.
“I was told that I would receive treatment for my depression, counselling for my self-harm,” Pearce told 10’s The Project.
“I was told I would be in a safe place.”
But Pearce went on, “It wasn’t until another girl and I were somewhat involved in a very young, teenage way, [that] the gay conversion practices started.
“The workers would pray over me, lay hands and attempt to exorcise the demons that were causing my homosexuality.
“They would tell me that the devil was putting these thoughts and feelings inside me.
“It made me believe that I was going to hell and it was a sin and that I was disgusting.
“It got to the point that I believed that, that I was worshipping Satan. I didn’t even know what that meant at age 14.”
PM Scott Morrison visited facility to award $4 million grant
Past WA Premiers have previously championed the Esther Foundation facility.
And in 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a grant of $4 million over seven years during a visit to the facility two months before that year’s election.
Since then, the foundation had received nearly half the allocated funds, according to the ABC.
The federal health department told the ABC the funding agreement included specific requirements regarding working with vulnerable people, and its compliance was being actively monitored.
But survivors and experts raised concerns about the government’s due diligence before awarding the $4 million grant.
Esther Foundation goes into administration, apologises
This week, the Esther Foundation announced it had entered voluntary administration from Wednesday (April 20), blaming a “media campaign” for damaging its reputation.
“Our funding base has reduced to the extent that we are likely [to] become insolvent in the very near future,” the Foundation said.
“The predicted outcome of this administration process will be the closure and winding up of the Foundation.”
A month earlier, the Esther Foundation issued a public apology in response to the allegations.
“We sincerely and without reservation apologise to these women and any others who have been hurt or have experienced abuse in any form,” it read.
The statement said two years ago, the Foundation had parted ways with founder and former managing director, Patricia Lavater (pictured above, inset).
Since then the organisation had gone through a “complete overhaul”, the Foundation said.
“While the Esther Foundation of today has evolved, we are determined to deal with the past,” the statement read.
“We stand in support of any former resident who has suffered hurt, abuse or anguish.”
Patricia Lavater now works at a different Christian rehabilitation centre in Perth, according to the ABC.
Western Australian government committee to investigate allegations
The Western Australian government has referred the Esther Foundation to a parliamentary committee for review.
WA Women’s Minister Simone McGurk said the committee will investigate the complaints from former residents, staff and volunteers.
“I was made aware of these disturbing allegations and invited former residents to contact me,” McGurk said.
“A large number have taken up that offer and shared significant matters of concern. I thank them for their courage.
“All people, especially children, have the right to feel safe and be treated with respect.
“I want to assure the women who shared their stories with me, the government is taking this matter seriously.”
McGurk encouraged anyone with a criminal complaint to contact WA Police.
She said the committee will also examine existing laws and regulations to see if they’re sufficient to address cases like this.
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