Elder Abuse is a scourge – it is, like domestic abuse, almost always perpetrated by those closest to the vulnerable person, as the ABC story from here in Perth yesterday illustrates.
It is predatory and usually cold and well calculated – it is not a ‘crime of passion’ but part of an abuse cycle that exists in many families.
That abuse pattern often exists in early stages as modest acts of pressure and bullying for the person to give them money or gifts. But once the person (often a parent) is older the abuse can escalate wildly, and often deep shame, as well as simple fear, prevent the elderly from speaking out.
When people age they can become very vulnerable; they are often heavily reliant on one or two people close to them (frequently children or carers) and can become isolated.
One of the great fears of the elderly in speaking out against abuse by a child for example, is the threat that if exposed the child will abandon them and cease to care for them, or withdraw contact with their grandchildren – and the elderly simply do not know where to turn.
Elder abuse occurs in the dark, because others are not looking or others are deliberately shut out of the picture.
Once an elderly person gives an unrestricted Enduring Power of Attorney to someone, the abuse can escalate rapidly, as it is an extremely powerful document.
The sad and infuriating case depicted in this article is not unique by any stretch. One wonders just how many similar cases exist that are never brought to a full hearing, or even never escalated beyond threats within the family or between lawyers.
From my personal experience as a succession lawyer, I know that it is commonplace. I have seen such abuses from the modest end with the odd unauthorised cash withdrawal at an ATM to full scale ‘strip mining’ and transfer of land and houses and assets and changing trust deeds to redirect the control of family trust fortunes.
And the reason it is infuriating? Because it persists despite social awareness growing, and because there are insufficient legal checks and balances in place.
Whilst the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) that considers guardianship and administration matters has powers to order investigations of the affairs of a vulnerable person, they lack the teeth to enforce any sanction or penalty. For that, someone needs to commence action in another Court.
SAT has limited powers, but they also have the Public Trustee and the Public Advocate to assist them.
The Public Advocate in particular can make informal and subtle enquiries of a vulnerable person’s living situation and make a report about where a person is being abused.
But perhaps the most power lies in the hands of all of us – under section 40 of the Guardianship and Administration Act 1990 (WA) anyone with what is called a proper interest can make an application to SAT to look into the welfare of a vulnerable person, and that can even be done orally.
A person with a proper interest may be a relative, or a neighbour, or the person’s doctor or lawyer or anyone genuinely concerned. It is not unusual for staff at a hospital to make the call when they see an elderly person being victimised.
Additionally, the Public Advocate themselves can be contacted directly and asked to investigate or the peak Aged Care body APEA or Advocare can be contacted and informed that an elderly person is vulnerable and being taken advantage of and they can wade on in: http://apeawa.advocare.org.au/
At the end of the day, whether we allow such abuse to persist is in our hands.