Actions under the recommended Elder Abuse Strategy

Staff training

12.37  Centrelink employs a number of categories of frontline service staff, including service staff and specialist staff, such as: financial information service officers; complex assessment officers; Indigenous specialist officers; and multicultural service officers. Financial information service officers can provide information to older people about planning for retirement, including in relation to when to seek independent expert advice. They can help older people understand the consequences of their financial decisions in the short, medium and long term.[67] Complex assessment officers process and assess complex claims for the Age Pension,[68] including claims that involve ‘granny flat interests’, and assets hardship.[69] Indigenous specialist officers help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access Centrelink payments and services.[70] Multicultural service officers help migrant and refugee communities to access government programs and services.[71]

12.38  Stakeholders suggested that Centrelink frontline staff, including specialist staff, are not specifically trained to deal with elder abuse. For example, the Eastern Community Legal Centre noted that, in their experience, ‘identification of and response to elder abuse by Centrelink is either ad hoc or non-existent’.[72] State Trustees Victoria said that it had been contacted by social workers from Centrelink concerned about a client, and it is their experience that Centrelink staff do not have access to clear guidelines or procedures in how to respond to elder abuse.[73]

12.39  Stakeholders have observed that there is a need to train staff and ‘develop tools and prompts to enable staff to identify signs’ of elder abuse[74] and to respond with appropriate referrals.[75]

12.40  This could include, for example, the development of protocols and additional training for staff on identifying risks of elder abuse where the recipient of Carer Payment is caring for an older person. Protocols might also require staff to refer certain matters to a social worker or financial information service officer. They may also provide guidance on when staff should contact a person identified as at risk of elder abuse to confirm whether the care recipient is getting the appropriate level of care. Such measures may be an important safeguard against abuse by a carer.

12.41  The financial counselling service, Care Inc, noted that training to identify signs of elder abuse and make appropriate referrals is especially required in circumstances where staff are contacted by older persons enquiring about ‘gifting’, ‘granny flat’ arrangements or entry into aged care. Staff should be trained to pick up any ‘red flags’, and refer the person to the appropriate social worker or financial information service officer.[76]

12.42  The WRC suggested there is a need for training of specialist staff to provide support and referrals to older persons. Assessment officers, who deal with complicated financial arrangements, could be used to identify and refer situations that may involve financial abuse. Financial information service officers could inform and educate older people, families and carers about elder abuse and the steps needed to reduce it.[77]

12.43  Training under the elder abuse strategy should incorporate training multicultural service officers, to improve the identification of issues specific to culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including the potential for elder abuse suffered at the hands of extended family, and risk factors associated with communication barriers and the lack of access to culturally and linguistically appropriate services.[78] Stakeholders also noted that training should include the identification of issues specific to older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including notions of reciprocity and the boundaries of such notions, and risks associated with the appropriation of the person’s Age Pension.[79]

Data collection and classification

12.44  Additional training for staff in identifying risks of elder abuse also provides an opportunity to collect data on the risks of elder abuse among different cohorts of older people. Ensuring this is properly captured improves the data available to Centrelink for fraud detection. In particular, access to additional data means Centrelink’s fraud detection processes, which rely on data analytics, might be better calibrated to assist in early detection and intervention. This could include identifying trends or risk factors that may increase the likelihood that an older person engaging with Centrelink might be experiencing elder abuse. For example, data from better identification of whether recipients of Carer Payment might be providing inadequate care might be captured and analysed to identify common patterns of behaviour. This information could be used to further improve Centrelink’s fraud detection systems.

12.45  The elder abuse strategy should therefore include a specific action focused on improving data collection and classification, particularly in the context of data collected through staff identifying people at risk of elder abuse. Such action to improve the evidence base for Centrelink’s purposes could also sit within the National Plan discussed in Chapter 3.

Direct contact principle

Recommendation 12–3            Centrelink staff should speak directly with persons of Age Pension age who are entering into arrangements with others that concern social security payments.

12.46  Many arrangements involving Centrelink that are entered into by older persons arise because the older person has limited, intermittent or diminishing decision‑making ability or mobility. This is apparent in payment nominee arrangements when the principal is an older person, and when a carer for an older person qualifies for Carer Payment. The capacity or mobility of an older person may even be a driving factor to entering into a ‘granny flat’ arrangement. The vulnerability of older persons entering into these arrangements heightens the risk of abuse, and invites a discrete Centrelink response.

12.47  A policy in favour of direct personal contact with people over Age Pension age could have wide application. There was broad support for this approach,[80] with stakeholders suggesting that greater involvement by Centrelink staff in processes involving older persons may reveal and potentially mitigate the risk of elder abuse.[81] The following case study provided by Seniors Rights Victoria illustrates where the direct contact principle might have been usefully applied in the context of abuse by the recipient of Carer Payment:

An older woman had a stroke a number of years ago, and her son moved into her rental accommodation to assist her when she was discharged from hospital. He was unemployed at the time, and then obtained a Carers Payment to assist with her ongoing care needs. The client acknowledged that her son did provide considerable assistance to her at that stage, and facilitated her recovery. However over the course of several years, the son provided less and less assistance, struggled with alcohol problems, and regularly became aggressive towards her. A wall in her home was punched in by her son during an argument between them. The mother’s health improved and she became more fearful of her son’s unpredictable behaviour. She attended an appointment at Centrelink, to advise of her improved health, and that her son no longer provided any care for her. The Carers Payment to her son was suspended. He confronted her about this, but she declined to discuss the matter with him. At the time of contacting SRV for assistance she reported that her son had become more aggressive, and unexpectedly produced papers for her to sign. She signed these documents under duress as she had again been threatened by him, and had no opportunity to read them. She later realised the documents were to reinstate the Carers Payment.[82]

12.48  It could also be applied in the context of ‘gifting’ rules, and in relation to ‘granny flat’ exemptions. Legal Aid NSW suggested that, where a person in receipt of the Age Pension has transferred an interest in their home for little or no value, this should be a ‘red flag’ and trigger contact with the older person, possibly through a social worker. The Centrelink contact person could clarify the circumstances and make an assessment of the person’s decision-making ability and whether the transfer was made knowingly. Centrelink could also use this contact to make it known to the person that they can seek Legal Aid.[83]

12.49  The direct contact principle is an important expression of respect for the autonomy and dignity of an older person. However, an appropriate balance must be struck between this principle and the potential burden it may place on the people contacted, as well as the resource implications, and workability of such a measure, particularly given the shift toward online interactions which have and will continue to result in reduced contact with Centrelink staff. As direct contact is a key safeguarding response in some situations, the ALRC considers targeted direct contact focused on situations of risk might be a more suitable approach. Centrelink must be able to accurately identify people who are experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing, abuse for a targeted direct contact principle to have the greatest impact. This requires the use of detection systems that rely on accurate data, collected by means including the improved identification of elder abuse by staff.

12.50  This recommendation does not stand alone. It would be one action of a broader elder abuse strategy which includes training for staff, improved data collection and classification, and increased community education and awareness raising.

12.51  An example of a class of persons where Centrelink might adopt a policy of making direct contact with all participants is the payment nominee scheme. Such arrangements are easily entered into and with minimal oversight, but have potentially wide-ranging consequences. Payment nominee applications are able to be completed online via the ‘myGov’ website, in person at a Centrelink service centre, or by post or fax. On approval of a payment nominee application, Centrelink sends letters to the principal and nominee confirming the nominee appointment. This may not be enough to safeguard a principal against coercion or fraud, especially where the payment nominee applicant is also the person’s correspondence nominee.[84] Seniors Rights Victoria noted that

older people can be seriously disadvantaged by the payment nominee system implemented by Centrelink, where elder abuse is at risk of occurring. In circumstances of financial abuse, or emotional or psychological abuse there is a strong likelihood that the authority to a payment nominee may not have been given freely by the older person. It is also likely that there has not been a detailed explanation of the operation or consequences of the authority to the older person. Often an older person will feel compelled to make this arrangement, particularly if they are impacted by health or mobility issues and reliant on the person nominated.[85]

12.52  There are sound policy reasons to make nominee appointments easily accessible. Easy access readily facilitates an arrangement that enables people with disability, or people who are experiencing difficulties to access and interact with Centrelink. The WRC observed that

one of the key benefits of nominee arrangements is that they can provide and prolong independence. Having a nominee to manage complex Centrelink affairs or to respond to correspondence can in some circumstances delay a move to an aged care facility and allow people to continue to live independently at home.[86]

12.53  However, as noted by the WRC, if payment nominee arrangements are misused, the impact can be extreme—leaving older persons with no money, or at risk of losing their home or accommodation.[87] A case study provided by Seniors Rights Victoria shows the extreme impact of abuse, while also illustrating more broadly the intersection between social security payments and elder abuse:

A son was operating his father’s financial affairs using an enduring power of attorney (EPOA), but also managing his pension under a nominee arrangement. To collect more money he failed to notify Centrelink that his father lived with him, and that he was renting the father’s house for considerable profit (retained by the son). Centrelink discovered the situation and raised a $12,000 overpayment against the father. As the son knew he would not be responsible for any debt under Centrelink legislation, he dropped his father off at his sister’s house, emaciated and with only the clothes he was wearing. Before the administrator could get involved in the retrieval of the rent money and protecting the remaining assets the son sold his father’s house and moved interstate. Both the nominee form and the EPOA were signed by the father well after he was deemed not to have capacity by the family doctor.[88]

12.54  To protect against coercion or fraud, stakeholders suggested that Centrelink should:

  • interview proposed principals to identify risk factors associated with undue influence; [89]

  • contact the principal to verify the nomination is genuine and explain the effect of the arrangement and how to revoke it; [90] and even

  • run compulsory background checks on proposed nominees.[91]

12.55  The ALRC considers that a requirement for direct personal contact with the parties to a payment nominee arrangement strikes an appropriate balance, retaining the accessibility of nominee applications for principals, while putting in place a simple preventative measure against abuse and misuse by nominees. Early and direct telephone or personal contact with principals could help to avoid forgeries or the appointment of inappropriate nominees.

12.56  However, in some cases, direct contact with the principal may not be the most appropriate approach. Carers Victoria, for example, cautioned against requiring direct contact with a person ‘under care’, noting that ‘many carers are supporting people with significant communication and cognitive impairments’. They argued that ‘it would be preferable if the treating health professional … was contacted to confirm the care relationship’.[92] Such concerns are best addressed by ensuring that access to appropriate supports for older people suffering cognitive impairment or other communication difficulties is provided.[93] Similarly, access should also be provided to appropriately credentialed interpreters.[94]

Enhanced understanding of roles and responsibilities

12.57  Arrangements that involve Centrelink can transfer significant powers and responsibilities to parties to the arrangements. Payment nominees may receive all or part of a person’s social security payment, and are trusted to use those funds only for the benefit of the principal. Carers in receipt of Carer Payment are responsible for a person’s health and wellbeing, and can often be involved in decisions regarding medical care.

12.58  Older persons and third parties to arrangements involving Centrelink may not have a full understanding of their roles and responsibilities under the arrangement. For example, payment nominees may not be aware that they should not mix monies, or that the monies should be spent only on the principal; carers may not understand the scope of their role and responsibilities, including their entitlement to respite; and older persons may not understand their rights. An action under the elder abuse strategy should be to identify opportunities for Centrelink to enhance understanding by making clear the roles and responsibilities of all participants to arrangements with persons of Age Pension age that concern social security payments. This may, where appropriate, be accompanied by information on support and assistance that may be available. Stakeholders were broadly supportive of this approach.[95]

12.59  Centrelink could, for example, send SMSs or letters (electronically as well as by post where possible) to Carer Payment recipients about their obligations and include information about programs and support services such as the Carer Gateway established by the Department of Social Services (Cth), a national website and phone service providing carers access to information and support.[96] Other support services include the availability of counselling and respite services.[97] It could also institute regular SMS reminders of available supports.

12.60  The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia recommended that older migrants on parent visas should be provided with materials modelled on the Family Safety Pack, which would provide information on what to do and where to go if the older person finds themselves in crisis and needs to leave their place of residence.[98] The material could be included with the grant letters issued by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.[99]

12.61  Other examples include clear guidelines and standards for payment nominees and carers, outlining their roles and responsibilities.[100] These, and other Centrelink communications, should be made available in accordance with the government’s Multicultural Access and Equity Policy, including by ensuring that material is available in community languages.[101] They should also be available in a number of formats, including, for example, in easy English.[102]

12.62  The design of Centrelink forms may also be improved to provide clearer information about roles and responsibilities. For example, the current design of the nominee authorisation application form places little emphasis on the responsibilities of the nominee.[103] Information regarding the obligations of a nominee is put two pages before the signed declaration of the nominee. Nominee obligations are directed toward the principal, and at no point does the form state in clear terms to the nominee what their obligations to the principal are. National Seniors suggested that greater use of the nominee application form could be made to inform and deter abuse. It proposed that the form explicitly state the penalty for not producing records (60 penalty points, equating to $10,800); the penalty at law for misuse of funds to the benefit of the nominee; and information about the review process.[104]

12.63  Community education to enhance older persons’ understanding of their rights forms an important strategy in the proposed National Plan to combat elder abuse, which focuses on helping older persons in protecting their rights.[105] In particular, enhancing the financial literacy of older persons in agreements that involve Centrelink is critical to safeguarding against financial abuse.[106] Centrelink can play a key role in financial literacy education of older persons regarding the interaction of personal finances with social security laws and legal frameworks.

12.64  The WRC specifically supported further education for older persons who are considering making gifts through loans or acting as guarantors to increase awareness of their social security obligations and to advise them where to seek help if needed.[107]