How to reduce the risk of elder abuse

Melanie Roberts
June 13, 2018

The United Nations has designated 15 June as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The objective of WEAAD is to raise awareness and to focus global attention on the problem of physical, emotional, and financial abuse of elders and how best to reduce incidents of abuse of elders, increase reporting of such abuse, and to develop elder friendly policies.

Elder abuse is defined as “a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person”. Elder abuse can take various forms such as physical, psychological or emotional, sexual and financial abuse. It can also be the result of intentional or unintentional neglect.

Elder Abuse in Australia

It is unknown how many older Australians are suffering some form of abuse but the Institute of Family Studies suggests it could be as many as 10%.

Older Australians who are living in residential care facilities or receive community aged care package (support at home) are vulnerable to abuse. Whilst the majority of facilities provide a high standard of care, and there are mandatory reporting obligations for suspected incidences in residential aged care, there are serious concerns that due to lack of supervision, leadership and systemic issues, a low standard of care is too often provided, with elder abuse being a serious issue which is often undetected.

At Worklogic, we have seen this first hand, as we are often brought in to conduct independent investigations into alleged inappropriate workplace behaviour in the aged care sector.

In response to the Oakden Report, which detailed failures in the quality of care provided to residents at facilities at Oakden in South Australia, an independent Review of National Aged Care Quality Regulatory Processes was completed. This lead to the Federal Government announcing in April 2018 that it is introducing a new national independent Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission as the current aged care regulatory framework is fragmented.

The Commission will start from 1 January 2019 and will be a single point of contact when help is needed to deal with claims of sub-standard care. It was also announced that options will be developed, in consultation with the aged care sector, for a Serious Incident Response Scheme to ensure the right systems are in place to identify an incident and prevent it from occurring again.

Reducing the risk of abuse in aged care

Reducing the incidence of abuse occurring for older Australians living in residential aged care is a complex issue.

In order to minimise risk, facilities must:

1. Implement/refresh policies and procedures

All residential care facilities should have clearly-defined organisational values, up-to-date internal organisational policies and procedures which give guidance on appropriate conduct and have processes in place to explain how the organisation will respond to allegations of breach, including those cases that require investigation.

We recommend that the reporting and investigation of allegations of abuse should be described in a single procedure or policy to avoid confusion and inconsistent approaches within the organisation, as the core principles of sound investigation process and good decision-making about the consequences of breach of policy are the same, no matter what type of misconduct is alleged.

2. Investigate allegations

Where an allegation of abuse is made the aged care facility must investigate to identify whether or not it has occurred. In conducting an investigation into an allegation or allegations of abuse, the organisation must adopt a procedurally fair process. The respondent must be provided with particularised allegations and be advised about the possible outcomes should they be sustained. Investigators must be impartial and independent and confidentiality must be maintained.

As the allegations of abuse by staff are serious allegations they will be potential ‘misconduct’ (if the allegations are proven it would likely breach the required standard of behaviour in the aged care facility, and therefore potentially lead to disciplinary action). This means that the requirements of procedural fairness are more critical, and if the investigation is undertaken in a flawed manner it could lead to the action taken against the employee being invalid (unfair dismissal).

In this situation, an organisation should consider appointing an external investigator who can conduct the investigation with no perception of bias, in a timely manner and undertake it with sufficient thoroughness and provide procedural fairness to the parties.

3. Address systemic issues

Where issues raised appear to indicate a widespread concern, such as systemic problems, a workplace review can be conducted. This involves interviews with a group of staff about their experiences at work and then actionable advice would be given about the steps the organisation can take to improve workplace culture and reduce risk. This process will provide the organisation with a more broad-ranging picture of “what is really going on” as well as insights into how to manage the problems that are identified. One of the recommendations may be that some matters require investigation.

Implementing these steps will help ensure organisations minimise the risk of abuse at their facility – a goal we all support.

About Melanie Roberts

Melanie RobertsMelanie Roberts is an experienced workplace investigator and a nationally accredited mediator, with a comprehensive understanding of the complex nature of workplace disputes. Based in Worklogic’s Sydney office,  Melanie has extensive experience conducting workplace investigations within the NSW public sector, undertaking a wide range of investigations including allegations of assault, sexual assault, workplace bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, racial and sexual discrimination. She has conducted numerous workplace reviews and is a trained conflict management coach.

Worklogic works with employers to resolve workplace complaints and create a positive culture at work.  Please contact Melanie for an obligation-free, confidential discussion on how to manage workplace conflict.

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