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Opinion: Age old problem needs new response

Opinion: Age old problem needs new response

By Melanie Joosten



Perpetrators of elder abuse, often the adult children of victims, must be held accountable.

Elder abuse is a recognised form of family violence, yet it remains difficult to manage the risk a perpetrator poses for the victim-survivor (often their parent), let alone hold the perpetrator truly accountable for their actions.

Perpetrators of intimate partner violence are increasingly held accountable through the justice system with the goal of managing their risk to the victim-survivor and restricting their future use of family violence. This accountability may take the form of direct punishment or referral to a Men’s Behaviour Change Program (MBCP), as well as the denouncement of the abusive behaviour. This system is far from perfect and there are myriad challenges in expecting a single-term MBCP or criminal sentence to change entrenched behaviour, but there are avenues and appetite.

The same cannot be said of making perpetrators of elder abuse accountable. 

In 67 per cent of advice given by Seniors Rights Victoria, the perpetrator of elder abuse was the adult son or daughter of the older person, and in 36 per cent of cases they were living with their parent. Forty six per cent of elder abuse perpetrators are women. 

Personal and societal expectations of parental responsibility often result in ageing parents feeling compelled to provide a home and support for their child – particularly if the adult child is experiencing unemployment, mental distress, homelessness or ill health. Over the last seven years, victim-survivors in 35 per cent of Seniors Rights Victoria’s advices reported that the perpetrator was experiencing drug and alcohol or gambling issues, and on average 31 per cent were experiencing mental illness – both figures are steadily climbing. The expectations placed on parents to provide care in these circumstances are heightened by housing stress and the often uneven intergenerational distribution of wealth and security within Australia – all of which is expected to be further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated response. 

People who have experienced elder abuse can be reluctant to seek assistance when they fear their own safety will come at too high a price for their whole family. A criminal conviction or intervention order that removes the perpetrator from the home may stop the abuse, but it may destroy the parent-child relationship (or that of other family members, such as grandchildren). It may also worsen the perpetrator’s substance abuse, mental illness or employment prospects – a difficult sentence for an older person to feel they have conveyed on their child, even while acknowledging the perpetrator’s actions are responsible for this outcome.

For this reason, there needs to be a better way of holding perpetrators of elder abuse to account. Recent research on improved accountability of perpetrators by Donna Chung and colleagues at Australia’s research organisation for women’s safety, ANROWS, highlights the very real difference between a perpetrator being held to account by the legal system (through a court-ordered intervention or criminal justice response) and being personally accountable for their actions in a way that engenders responsibility and sustained behaviour change. Important aspects of MBCPs could be appropriated to respond to elder abuse perpetration, including the monitoring of risk and the provision of partner support.

Rather than a group-based MBCP-type program, an individual case management and counselling program that supported respondents to address complex needs could be developed. The five Victorian Specialist Family Violence Courts that can impose counselling orders that require respondents to be assessed for participation in a MBCP could impose a similar requirement on perpetrators of elder abuse to be assessed for case management and support. 

This would introduce a promising response in instances where the older person would be happy for a limited intervention order allowing their child to continue cohabiting with them if they were attending a support program. In line with the Royal Commission into Family Violence reforms, this could later be extended to all Magistrates' Court locations that hear elder abuse matters. 

Considering the reluctance an ageing parent may feel to continually report abusive behaviour (and risk further damaging the relationship), having a perpetrator kept in view and the risk of violence being monitored would be a valuable feature of the program. In addition, the older person could continue to be supported (even if the perpetrator leaves the program) by an appropriate partner contact agency experienced in working with older people, that could support them to recover from the abuse and safeguard against future harms.

The burden of responsibility for staying safe has been on the older person for too long. There needs to be a shift in focus to increase the likelihood of perpetrators of elder abuse being held accountable and changing their behaviours.

(See Law Council of Australia column, p83) ■

Melanie Joosten is policy officer at Seniors Rights Victoria.

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