Parliament: Parliamentary Initiatives

Motion on Elder Abuse

The Hon. K.L. VINCENT: I move:

That the Social Development Committee inquire into and report on matters relating to elder abuse in South Australia including—

1. The prevalence of abuse (including but not limited to financial abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, social abuse, chemical abuse and neglect) experienced by older people in South Australia;

2. The most common forms of abuse experienced by older persons and the most common relationships or settings in which abuse occurs;

3. The types of government and/or community support services sought by, or on behalf of, victims of elder abuse and the nature of service received from those agencies and organisations;

4. The adequacy of the policies, resources, powers and expertise of specialist agencies (including South Australia Police, Office of the Public Advocate, Aged Rights Advocacy Service, Legal Services Commission, Public Trustee, Domiciliary Care South Australia) and other relevant service agencies to respond to allegations of elder abuse;

5. Identifying effective ways to improve reporting of and responding to elder abuse to assist in establishing best practice strategies for multi-agency responses;

6. Identifying any strength-based initiatives which empower older persons to better protect themselves from risks of abuse as they age;

7. The effectiveness of South Australian laws, policies, services and strategies, including the South Australian Strategy for Safeguarding Older People 2014-2021 in safeguarding older persons from abuse;

8. Innovation for long-term integrated systems and proactive measures to respond to the increasing number of older persons, including consideration of their diverse needs and experiences, to prevent abuse;

9. The consideration of new proposals or initiatives which may enhance existing strategies for safeguarding older persons who may be vulnerable to abuse or prevent such abuse , including with reference to international best practice;

10. Identifying ways to inform older South Australians about online scams to which they may be vulnerable; and

11. Any other related matter.

I speak today to introduce this motion on behalf of Dignity for Disability, and in so doing would like to acknowledge the work of organisations and individuals such as Aged Rights Advocacy, the Council on the Ageing (COTA), and law academics such as Professor Wendy Lacey, and the work that they undertake in the area of elder abuse prevention.

Not unlike abuse of people with disabilities, elder abuse is a topic that there is often still much ignorance around and denial of. Although also similar to some vulnerable people in the disability community, older people can often find themselves comparatively isolated and neglected, or viewed as somehow having lesser needs or rights. Australia’s criminal laws must be reviewed in light of the low rate of prosecution for elder abuse, according to a leading expert, who has also called for the various powers of attorney and guardianship laws that we have at a state level to be re-examined.

Professor Wendy Lacey, Dean of Law at the University of South Australia, told the Australian Association of Gerontology national conference on Wednesday that, along with legislative reform, coroners need to be educated about elder abuse and its prevalence. I understand that, while there were mandatory reporting obligations around suspected physical and sexual abuse under the Aged Care Act, these only covered seniors living in aged care residences and did not protect the majority of older people who are not yet accessing federally funded services, Professor Lacey says.

Professor Lacey, who is also a convenor of the Australian Research Network on Law and Ageing, was last year appointed to the SA Minister for Health’s steering committee, which reviewed the state’s framework for responding to elder abuse. She said that under the constitution the federal parliament’s powers to address elder abuse were ‘virtually nil’ with ‘almost no capacity to develop a comprehensive systemic framework’. Therefore, advocates need to look to the states, according to Professor Lacey.

I would now like to touch on some of the barriers to detecting abuse of older people. In some situations, it can difficult to recognise or verify abuse as some forms of abusive behaviour against older people are subtle or intentionally hidden. Making the person feel safe may assist them to raise their concerns about an abusive situation. There are many reasons why older people or others may not be raising issues of abuse. Being aware of why abuse is being kept secret will assist the director of care to raise the issue with sensitivity. Abuse may not be reported because:

of unwillingness to disclose that the abuse is occurring and/or has occurred;

the older person is unable to disclose the abuse due to a lack of mental capacity;

of health professionals, care and other support staff or the public being unaware that the abuse of older people needs to be a consideration; or

signs and symptoms of abuse may be difficult to detect. Many of the signs of abuse are wrongly attributed to changes associated with the natural ageing process, including physical and mental changes.

Older people may be reluctant to discuss their abuse:

due to denial or not wanting to admit to themselves that there is a problem;

due to wanting to protect their alleged abuser (e.g. from perceived potential punishment, a loss of standing in the community or embarrassment, particularly, I imagine, if the abuser is also a friend or family member);

due to feelings of shame or guilt or being judged as bad for allowing the abuse to happen to them;

due to the fear of retaliation or further punishment from the alleged abuser or fear of the abuser harming others in the family;

due to fear of not being believed or accused of lying;

because of doubts about confidentiality being maintained or a belief that there is no-one in whom they can confide;

because they consider the abuse to be normal behaviour;

because they believe that they need to resolve matters by themselves and not involve or burden others;

because they believe that nothing will change;

because they are unable to communicate or express what is happening to them due to confusion, language difficulties, depression, physical or mental illness, or a lack of other supports that would enable them to tell their story;

because of different cultural perceptions;

because they may be unaware of the law, particularly changes to the Aged Care Act 1997 and compulsory reporting requirements; or

because they may have sought assistance in the past, but that response may have been unsuccessful in causing change.

There are also many reasons why other people in the life of an older person may not necessarily disclose abuse. Family members, staff, banking officers, GPs, friends, visitors to the home or other residents may suspect abuse of an older person but may be reluctant to raise their concerns due to:

not wanting to interfere;

concern that the older person may lose trust or confidence in them;

being unaware of services or other supports about where to actually take the allegations of abuse;

believing that they lack the knowledge or resources to intervene, particularly about successful strategies;

believing that nothing will be done to improve the situation; or

believing that the action will be heavy-handed, insensitive and lead to further harm to the older person, or they may be unaware that older people do take action and can take action to prevent abuse and speak out about abuse if properly supported.

From the points I have just outlined about the many factors that make older people more vulnerable to abuse and also why this is not spoken about more readily, I am sure members are probably recognising some unfortunate similarities between the abuse of elderly people and the abuse of people with disabilities. Certainly, there are significant similarities that I think do need to be investigated.

On behalf of Dignity for Disability, through the Disability Justice Plan I believe I have been very pleased to play, I believe, a significant role in closing some of those gaps that leave people with disabilities vulnerable to abuse, giving people with disabilities a greater voice in court and, therefore, sending a very strong message to perpetrators that they have fewer avenues to get away with abuse. I am now very pleased to look at this issue and see how we can identify the similarities and also the differences and work together as a parliament and as a community to prevent and put in place a zero tolerance policy of abuse against elderly people—both a literal policy and one as an attitude of community.

Dignity for Disability certainly welcomes debate on this issue and looks forward to watching evidence that may be collected. We really believe that some legislative frameworks need to be put in place here in South Australia, as I have just touched on, and I would again point to the work of organisations and individuals such as Professor Wendy Lacey. As I have discussed in relation to disability in this place, getting older, like disability, is a mainstream issue in South Australia. We need to do all we can to ensure that our elders can age with the dignity and respect we should all expect and deserve as members of our community.

I look forward to the Social Development Committee undertaking this important inquiry to identify ways in which we can better protect and respect all members of our community. With those brief words, I commend the motion to the chamber.