23 August 2022

'You did not pick up the phone': Liberal's claim sparks heated exchange with Stephen-Smith

| Lottie Twyford
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Leanne Castley

Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley has again questioned the Health Minister on why she didn’t contact the bereaved family of Rozalia Spadafora after her death. Photo: Region.

The Health Minister’s actions in the wake of the tragic death of a five-year-old girl have sparked a heated exchange in today’s estimates hearings.

Opposition spokesperson for health Leanne Castley pressured Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith on why she had not made contact with Rozalia Spadafora’s grieving parents until the news of her death broke in the media.

Rozalia died a day after being admitted to hospital on her fifth birthday on 5 July.

READ ALSO Parents who lost son to suicide plead with government to do more so no other family suffers same fate

The circumstances surrounding Rozalia’s death have since been referred to the coroner and an internal clinical review is underway at a hospital.

Her parents have been vocal in calling for better funding and for parents to be taken seriously when they bring their sick child to the hospital.

It’s understood Ms Stephen-Smith wrote to the parents to offer her condolences on 2 August after they had been contacted by Canberra Health Services Chief Operating Officer Cathie O’Neill.

Rozalia Spadafora

Rozalia Spadafora died the day after her fifth birthday. Photo: Supplied.

“I was not aware that the family was expecting contact until it became public in the media. Unlike you, who was aware of this, because the family had contacted you and had spoken to you and you were aware they were feeling unsupported,” Ms Stephen-Smith responded.

“You were aware they were expecting senior contact from the minister and the [Health] directorate. You did not pick up the phone to me. You did not text me and you did not email me to let me know this.”

READ ALSO ‘It was bad enough giving birth to a dead baby’: another traumatic birth experience at Canberra Hospital

The Health Minister described Ms Castley’s conduct as being “in stark contrast” to her predecessors and other MLAs.

“Previously, other members of this place have been contacted by people who are in distress and understood they have an obligation to support them and to try to help them,” she said.

“Had I been aware that the family was expecting contact, I would certainly have been in contact with them and I would have been in contact with them if that was their wish.”

She has since offered to meet with the Spadaforas, but they have yet to take her up on that offer.

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said it was not standard practice for her to contact every bereaved family. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

Ms Castley asked the minister if other children had died in hospital since Rozalia’s death.

An incredulous Ms Stephen-Smith said she was “not sure” how to answer that question.

“People die in hospitals. It is part of running a health service and I would not be advised every time an individual dies in hospital.”

Ms Stephen-Smith said she would receive briefings if an incident arose, which would go to a review as Rozalia’s death had.

She told Ms Castley that the usual processes in place to support bereaved families had been put in motion and it was not standard practice for the minister to reach out to the family directly.

“Those processes were implemented. I don’t want to speak about specifics in relation to this individual matter, but I believe all members of the Assembly who are contacted by a constituent who could be supported in some way have an obligation to seek that support,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“You have my phone number.”

But Ms Castley said it was not her job to inform the minister a family wanted to hear from her.

The Health Minister has previously been forced to defend her actions in Question Time, saying she did not believe a grieving family would necessarily want to be contacted by someone who was effectively a stranger to them.

Dave Peffer

Canberra Health Services CEO Dave Peffer said the hospital was performing well in relation to others around the country regarding paediatric deaths. Photo: Lottie Twyford.

Canberra Health Services CEO Dave Peffer took on notice a question from Ms Castley on the number of deaths in paediatrics which have had to be reviewed in the past three years.

Mr Peffer said when a standardised mortality rate in paediatrics was compared to other hospitals around the country, Canberra Hospital was performing well.

READ ALSO ‘No parent should have to suffer this’: Rozalia Spadafora’s family speaks as internal hospital review launched

Ms O’Neill told Ms Castley there was – at this stage – insufficient demand for a paediatric cardiologist in the ACT.

But she said this would continue to be reviewed.

Rozalia went into cardiac arrest while the family was awaiting a transfer to Sydney. Her parents were later told she died from a heart condition, myocarditis, as a result of an influenza A infection.

The Spadafora family declined to comment at this time.

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