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Justice for Victims of Elder Abuse: designing a new approach with older people

Professor John Williams of Aberystwyth University outlines the Choice project which will be working with older people who are being abused in order to assist them access the kind of help and support they need.

Alan Clarke, Sarah Wydall and John Williams of Dewis Choice

Professor Alan Clarke, Sarah Wydall and Professor John Williams of Dewis Choice

The good news is that we are living longer.  Estimates show that the number of older people living in Wales will increase from about 615,000 today, to nearly 900,000 by 2039.   The fact that we live longer is not a problem – it is something we should celebrate.  However, it brings challenges in particular for health, social care, transport and leisure services.  Wales has been innovative in its approach to its ageing population.  The Strategy for Older People in Wales 2013-23 is now in its third phase.  Other countries have followed this innovative idea.  Wales was the first country in the World to appoint an Older People's Commissioner whose remit is to protect the rights of older people.  Since the creation of the office by the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Act 2006, the Commissioner has undertaken reviews of residential care homes, dignity and respect in hospitals in Wales, and advocacy in care homes.  The general view is that Wales is a good place in which to grow older and in many respects, it is.

However, not all older people in Wales have a good experience.  Poverty, poor housing, fuel poverty and isolation affect the lives of some older people in Wales.  They share many of these with younger generations.  Sadly, older people in Wales also experience abuse and neglect.  A study on the prevalence of elder abuse conducted for the Department of Health in 2007 found that 6% of respondents to the survey who lived in Wales experienced abuse – that is the highest prevalence in the United Kingdom.  Estimates suggest that 35,000 older people in Wales experience abuse or neglect, which roughly equates to the population of Port Talbot or Pontypridd. 

There have been several well-publicised cases of the abuse of older people in residential care.  Operation Jasmine found over one hundred older victims suffered abuse in a group of care homes in South Wales.  The finding of the investigation into the treatment of older patients in Glan Clwyd Hospital identified failures in the care of vulnerable older people. It is disturbing that these took place in what are supposed to be safe and caring environments.   As well as institutional settings, elder abuse takes place in people's own homes.  People in positions of trust abuse older people, for example, family members and people they know.  Abuse can involve action or inaction.  It causes immeasurable harm to many older people and can lead to isolation, poverty, malnutrition and premature death.

The Centre for the Study of Ageing, Abuse and Neglect, based in the Department of Law and Criminology, has been awarded £890,000 by the Big Lottery as part of a £1.3m research project on Elder Abuse and Justice.  The grant holders are Alan Clarke, John Williams and Sarah Wydall.  The other members of the team are Sarah Cairns, Jeremy Newman and Rebecca Zerk.  Two additional people are to be appointed in the near future. In addition, a number of volunteers are being recruited. The Project is called Dewis Choice.

The Project builds on research undertaken by the Centre on elder abuse focussing on those who experience abuse or neglect in their own homes by a family member or 'friend'.  The research reveals several things.  Perhaps the most disturbing is that something appears to happen when a person experiencing abuse reaches the age of sixty.  They appear to be moved to other processes where justice options that may be explored for younger victims, are not considered.  Although a lot of elder abuse is domestic abuse, it is not seen as such by agencies and available justice options are not pursued or even presented as an option.  A more welfare approach is adopted.  Social care and support is important, but it may fail to deliver justice for the older person.  Sometimes, it may mean the older person having to leave their home and move into residential care, which victimises them for a second time.

Dewis ChoiceThe research revealed that the criminal law is rarely used.  In most cases, abuse involves a criminal offence.  This is not to suggest the criminal law should always be the answer, or that it is the answer in most cases.  However, low figures of prosecutions or cautions of between 1% and 2% of referred cases must give rise to concerns.  Have we effectively decriminalised elder abuse?  Do we deny older people the protection of the criminal law? 
Throughout investigations of elder abuse, the research showed older people are disempowered.  It is something being done to them rather than with them.  The lack of advocacy to support the victim is apparent.   This is particularly the case where the victim lacks mental capacity, but it applies to others as well. 

Victims of elder abuse want three things.  First, they want the abuse to end.  Second, they want the perpetrator to recognise what they are doing is wrong.  Third, they want to feel justice has been done.  Justice involves something in addition to civil or criminal proceedings.  If the perpetrator is a family member, for example a grandchild, the grandparent may not want to see them criminalised or the subject of court proceedings.  It is important that the dynamics of elder abuse be recognised. 

If elder abuse takes place within a family, there can be mixed reactions.  Criminalising a family member may have devastating consequences for the family.  Members of the family may take sides.  It is possible that a family providing support and companionship will abandon the older person as they side with the perpetrator.  However, it is unacceptable that the price the older person has to pay for this support is for the abuse to continue. 

Typically, it is assumed the victim is dependent upon the perpetrator.  This is often the case – the perpetrator may enable the victim to continue living at home.  However, on occasions the research shows that there is mutual dependency.  The perpetrator may steal, for example, from the older person to fund an addiction.

These findings led the team to conclude that further research was required to identify any justice deficits in existing procedures and to design, with older people, a new restorative approach for victims of elder abuse.  This restorative approach aims to preserve and build on what is good about the relationship, but ensure the abuse ends and the perpetrator recognises their behaviour as being wrong.

The Choice Project will work with several key stakeholders including Carmarthenshire and City of Cardiff local authorities.  It will start with an awareness-raising exercise conducted by volunteers from all age groups, ensuring that the project is truly intergenerational.  Often older people are given little or no information on what options are available, so the second stage will appoint and train specialist Justice Workers who, with the older person, will identify the justice options and any social care services that may be available, giving the older person sufficient information to make an informed choice as to whether to use them.  In addition, the Justice Worker will offer victims the opportunity of taking part in developing and evaluating a restorative approach intended to make sure the abuse ends, and the older person feels justice has been achieved without destroying what may be a crucial support network and strong emotional ties. 

Choice seeks to move away from the domination of the welfare approach and instead offer older victims choice.  Human rights underpin the project and abuse is a breach of many human rights. 

Most importantly, it is intended to make sure victims of elder abuse are empowered to make informed choices about how we end elder abuse.

If you wish to know more about Dewis Choice please contact Jeremy Newman the Project Coordinator on (tel 01970 622516), visit the website.  In addition, you can follow us on Twitter - @choiceolderppl.

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Prom, the magazine of Aberystwyth University.

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