Securing Release of ReINVEST Trial Grant Documents

After reports online in relation to the NSW Government funding of the ReINVEST trial program to the sum of $6.9 million, Abigail successfully called for the release of grant documents to continue investigating the basis on which funding has been provided. 

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD: I move:

That private members' business item No. 997 outside the order of precedence be considered in a short form format.

Motion agreed to.

Ms ABIGAIL BOYD (16:51): I move:

That, under Standing Order 52, there be laid upon the table of the House within 21 days of the date of passing of this resolution the following documents created since 1 July 2017, in electronic format if possible, in the possession, custody or control of Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, Minister for Families, Communities and Disability Services, Minister for Counter Terrorism and Corrections, or the Department of Communities and Justice relating to the ReINVEST trial led by the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales:

(a)all documents relating to the application, assessment or approval of funding under the ReINVEST trial, including the reporting of outcomes and acquittal of funds;

(b)all documents relating to meetings with or related to Professor Tony Butler or Lee Knight;

(c)all documents relating to the funding of the ReINVEST trial and any other trials or projects related to the ReINVEST trial, Professor Tony Butler or Lee Knight; and

(d)any legal or other advice regarding the scope or validity of this order of the House created as a result of this order of the House.

We hear some extraordinary things as an MP in this place. But this ReINVEST trial, and the Government's funding of it, is on a whole new level. We are talking about a multimillion-dollar clinical trial that is assessing whether a common antidepressant could help to reduce reoffending rates and the "impulsivity" of perpetrators of domestic violence. Headed up by the Kirby Institute, the trial makes purported claims of all kinds of success. But if we scratch the surface, we start to see that what is happening here is at best ineffective and unethical and at worst life threatening. Let us not even talk about the premise that perpetrators can be given a pill and all of the underlying issues leading to abusers committing domestic violence will magically go away. We really get to the gob‑smackingly unethical nature of this trial when we examine its methodology.

The trial recruits men who have been found guilty of a domestic violence offence and offers them a starter dose of Sertraline, a common antidepressant, generally known as Zoloft. Anyone who has been on Sertraline knows well that the 50 milligram initial dose will ordinarily be raised to a therapeutic dose within the first few months under medical supervision, noting that it takes months for Sertraline to have any substantial effect. But in this trial these men, who have already been found guilty of domestic violence, are given this non‑therapeutic dose of Sertraline and then—wait for it—are asked to self‑report how impulsive they feel. They do not ask the victim‑survivors whether they have been hit again; they do not back up the self‑reporting with any independent source. In their words, they just rely "on the honest self‑report" of known abusers during a weekly phone call.

There is no proper control group. There is no evidence that the participants actually took the medication. There is only three months of data. The findings are based on a pilot program involving only 34 participants, 14 of whom dropped out and were then excluded from the final reporting statistics, thereby biasing the results due to non‑compliance. This study has none of the scientific rigour of a randomised control trial, as would be expected from a government-funded study. It is at best a short-term pilot cohort study, the fourth level of evidence on the internationally recognised scale of evidence for intervention studies—or it would be if it were well designed, but it is not. Sertraline is the subject of numerous side-effect warnings. In 2016 Bielefeldt and others conducted a systematic review—the highest level of evidence—of suicide and violent behaviours in those taking antidepressants, including Sertraline. They concluded that antidepressants double the occurrence of events that can lead to suicide and violence.

Dr David Healy has been warning about the links between Sertraline and violence for more than a decade. In 2018 he and his colleagues published, among other cases, three cases of Sertraline noted by the courts as contributing to homicide. Since 2006 Dr Healy has been reporting that antidepressant‑induced restlessness, agitation, inability to keep still, emotional disinhibition, emotional blunting and manic or psychiatric reactions lead to violence. It should come as no surprise that the partners of trial participants are reporting that this trial is being used by perpetrators to justify their violent behaviours, increase coercive control and gain access to their children. In one deeply troubling account, a woman reports that her partner beat their child while using the study as a way of gaining access and avoiding consequences for his actions. She does not have a trial contact to seek help and she has not been asked about the trial impacts upon her. She has not consented to this trial, and yet it impacts every facet of her life. This research is not even being carried out under the supervision of a psychiatrist.

It sounds really far‑fetched. But what is even more far‑fetched is that this Liberal‑Nationals Government greenlit this trial with $6.9 million of funding over three years. Let us put that in context. The Trauma Recovery Centre in Wollongong, which provides life-changing, evidence-based treatment and support for women survivors of domestic violence, asked this Government for funding and was given $50,000. They could run for almost three years on the money that was given to the Kirby Institute. We are constantly told by this Government that there is no money for any of these evidence-based programs that the experts in this area, the frontline workers, the victim‑survivors, even the perpetrators, are telling us they urgently need to stop domestic violence. And yet here we have $6.9 million going to a program that has no hope of producing significant evidence of treatment effect, no proper consent and no proper supervision. It is dangerously unethical and has already led to the perpetration of more violence. With these concerns now out in the open, we have no choice but to demand to see the basis on which this funding was given. Please support this call for papers so we can shine a light on this deeply troubling study.

The Hon. NATALIE WARD (16:56): The Government does not oppose the motion.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (The Hon. Shayne Mallard): The question is that the motion be agreed to.

Motion agreed to.

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