Joint Committee on Matters Relating to Elder Abuse

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

That the final report of the committee be noted.

Today, we release this important report on matters relating to elder abuse—the abuse of older people—in South Australia. This joint committee was instigated by myself and the member for Fisher, Nat Cook, in the other place. We worked together on this important issue for a number of reasons. The first, of course, is that, some time before this committee was established, I had a matter on the Notice Paper to instigate a separate committee to look into this very important issue. Once the horrific abuse at the Mitcham nursing home came to light, the member for Fisher and I decided to work together to instigate a more speedy inquiry, so that we could get these issues on the table and get results to prevent this very big scourge in our community.

The member for Fisher and I had worked together on the South Australian parliament’s Social Development Committee, which delivered its report on domestic and family violence last year. Because we were both very passionate about working on issues particularly relating to protecting vulnerable people, in these cases particularly people facing domestic violence and people facing elder abuse, we wanted to work together collaboratively on addressing elder abuse. This is important because issues relating to vulnerable people, particularly elder abuse pertaining to vulnerable older people, should, of course, be beyond party politics and require a collaborative approach.

With that work being done together, a joint committee on elder abuse was established in October 2016. This, of course, became completely and utterly important to do very quickly, after public revelations of elder abuse in South Australian aged care where a care worker (and I use the word care worker in quotation marks because I do not think anyone could argue that they were very caring) was convicted of aggravated assault. Also, 2017 was a shocking year with the revelations about the Oakden Older Persons Mental Health Service coming to light.

This committee was not focused particularly on matters relating to Oakden, although there were some moves to broaden the terms of reference of the committee to allow that to happen. The committee took a focus on the bigger picture: systemic issues relating to elder abuse across the board, as opposed to focusing on one particular instance. Of course, that is important because, unfortunately, elder abuse is not contained to either Mitcham or to Oakden and so it was important that we had an across-the-board, systemic approach to solving and addressing elder abuse wherever and whenever it occurs.

The committee held eight public hearings and received personal testimony from 28 diverse witnesses in person. The final number of submissions, combining those in person and those in writing, was around 36 submissions. The experience, the views and, importantly, the knowledge of the witnesses was taken into account in our recommendations. Witnesses included families or representatives of abuse survivors, victims of abuse, experts in law and policy in the area of elder abuse, including state government, older people’s advocates, aged-care service providers, police, representatives of Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including the LGBTIQ community, and representatives of the nursing sector. We were informed by information and outcomes or recommendations from other inquiries surrounding elder abuse, including the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) inquiry into elder abuse in Australia at the national level.

Our report, in total, makes five comprehensive recommendations. I commend the writer and researcher for our report, Myrana Wahlquist, particularly for giving us what is a very comprehensive but also succinct report, making sure that it is easy to work through not only for members of parliament and members of government who will be working to implement those recommendations, but also for members of the community, many of whom have taken a great interest in this topic. It is really important to have a comprehensive but succinct and to the point report, and thanks to the great work of our researcher that is what we have here.

We make five recommendations which are practical and affordable. They support those made by other expert inquiries around the nation in the last seven years. I would like to elaborate on those five recommendations now. Recommendation 1 calls on the state government to advocate strong federal government leadership for an ambitious, comprehensive and coordinated approach to elder abuse in supporting the 2017 Australian Law Reform Commission’s recommendations. As I said earlier, given that this is a human rights issue and one that should absolutely be above politics, it is important that we have a collaborative approach at all levels, including all members in this parliament and all members between state and federal parliaments.

Recommendation 2 supports the establishment of a national elder abuse strategy supporting the ALRC’s call for unregistered care workers providing direct care to be subject to the planned national code of conduct for care workers, or support workers, as they are often called; national screening processes, of course, to make it easier to detect those who have done or may do the wrong thing; and legislation to regulate the use of restrictive practices in residential aged care, and given the Dignity Party has played a great role in getting a senior practitioner to oversee, limit and, indeed, stop the use of unnecessary restrictive practices, such as physical and chemical restraint, we are very keen to see that expanded to the aged-care sector, which can be just as vulnerable and need just as much help in terms of a change in policy, and also practical help, as people with disabilities Given that we have made that change in the disability sector, it makes absolute sense to expand that to address the unnecessary use of restrictive practice against older people also.

Recommendation 2 refers also to a national online register for enduring documents, improved research, data collection and community awareness raising. Of course, whilst that does not address the end point of elder abuse, it is important that we have online portals to make it easy for people to get documents relating to their enduring care, such as guardianship documents and so on, and also that we have improved research and data collection so that we know exactly how the state and federal governments are tracking in tackling the issue of elder abuse. That is recommendation 2.

Recommendation 3 calls for the state government to actively take part in the new federal government initiatives announced on 1 October this year, including making the most of the membership and co-chairing of the national elder abuse working group established in January 2017, using this group to discuss, clarify and promote, as appropriate, an online register for enduring documents, as I have discussed, extended mandatory reporting, which is something that the Dignity Party has advocated for people with disabilities, largely modelled on the fact that it does already exist for older people in this state but there have certainly been some submissions to us that that scheme needs to be extended. Certainly, that needs to be investigated.

Importantly, we would also like to see increased discussion of the potential use of surveillance cameras in residential aged care. Because of the somewhat controversial nature of that topic and the number of diverse views that exist around this topic, this committee did not make any particular recommendations around surveillance, but believes that surveillance should be implemented on a case-by-case basis in residential care where residents agree to it, rather than it being an across-the-board issue, again recognising many different views that people have and not wanting to see all older people as vulnerable and therefore having to be under surveillance, when some people might see that as very much being against their dignity.

Recommendation 4 is the most important recommendation of the report; it is certainly my favourite. It calls on the state government to introduce new legislation in this place to establish a South Australian adult protection act. This is something that I and a number of other members have had an interest in for some time, because, as I said earlier, there are adults who may be vulnerable in the same way that older people living in aged care are. Yet, older people living in residential aged care are protected by measures like mandatory reporting, as are young children in the state, and rightly so. The fact of the matter is that we have a whole group of other people who may face those same vulnerabilities but are not necessarily protected with adequate legislation.

This report calls for a new act to encompass all adults who might be vulnerable, be that because of disability or age but they are not necessarily living in residential aged care, to be covered through new-look legislation and, importantly, the establishment of an older person’s protection unit to make sure that the rights of older people and other vulnerable people are monitored and upheld by this state government.

That is modelled on a number of existing pieces of legislation in Scotland, where their adult protection act has been legislated since, I think, 2006. There is certainly a model that we can copy. We do not need to reinvent the wheel here. We need to learn from that model, learn from those experiences and make sure that we get that new legislation and that unit up and running as quickly as possible to ensure that, finally, the rights of older people who are vulnerable in the state and who count on us to pass adequate laws and policies to protect them, can finally have that right and that expectation met.

Finally, recommendation 5 calls on the state government to establish a new South Australian elder abuse unit, previously recommended in the Closing the Gap Report in 2011 and, as I have said already, legislated for in other jurisdictions, including Scotland. So, there are models we can copy here. It is proven to work, it is based on working models interstate, and it is what the community, based on the evidence given to the committee, has told us they want.

I am looking forward to working with all members in this place on all five recommendations, but particularly the last two—4 and 5: the establishment of new legislation and a new unit to comprehensively respond to and protect the rights of older people and all vulnerable adults so that, hopefully, we do not see a repeat of the abhorrent and unacceptable behaviour and disregard of human rights that has happened in places like Mitcham and Oakden.

As I have said, two instances are two too many, but it would be great if those were the only two we had to deal with. We know that we would be naive and neglecting our duties if we only responded to those two, and that is why the committee has taken a systemic view and supports a national approach, long called for by experts.

The problem is a national one, a human rights one, and human rights know no borders. So, we need national action under leadership from both the federal and state governments, as well as significant state government policy changes, like the new legislation and Australian elder abuse prevention unit, from both the federal and state parliaments.

I am looking forward to working with all members in this place. I thank our wonderful secretary and researchers, I thank all members of the committee, and I look forward to, finally, getting a comprehensive response to this issue so that one day we can look forward to governments adequately responding to the rights of all people, including vulnerable adults and vulnerable older people, as something that just happens as a matter of course.

We should already be at the point where older people should be able to expect governments to adequately respond to their needs, particularly in the face of abuse and neglect, as a matter of course. But, as Oakden has sadly shown us, where reports of abuse and negligent went under the radar for some 15 years, this needs new, fresh ideas and significant state and federal investment. I look forward to working with all members in this place, particularly the member for Fisher in the other place, to finally get a South Australia where all human rights of older people are responded to as a matter of course.