Elder abuse strategy

Proposal 10–1          The Department of Human Services (Cth) should develop an elder abuse strategy to prevent, identify and respond to the abuse of older persons in contact with Centrelink.

10.4       There are numerous laws and legal frameworks pertaining to social security. The ALRC has heard that elder abuse responses are mostly absent from these instruments.[1] To increase visibility, the ALRC proposes that the Department of Human Services develop a discrete elder abuse strategy, specifically requiring Centrelink staff to be alert to the possibility of elder abuse, and to develop appropriate responses when dealing with Age Pension clients.[2]

10.5       Social security legislation includes the Social Security Act 1991 (Cth) and the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 (Cth). Social security laws and legal frameworks are administered by the Department of Human Services through Centrelink. The Department of Social Services produces the Guide to Social Security Law to provide guidance to Centrelink decision makers. The Guide is a broad publication that details the processes for a wide variety of social security outputs including study payments, unemployment benefits, Carer Payment, assurances of support and the Age Pension.

10.6       A legal framework has been developed to respond specifically to family violence when family violence intersects with social security. The Department of Human Services published the Family and Domestic Violence Strategy 2016–19, which is applicable to Centrelink staff and processes. The strategy focuses on providing information about family and domestic violence, identifying those at risk of family and domestic violence, providing referrals and support, training staff in relation to family and domestic violence, and embedding responses to violence across systems and processes.

10.7       The strategy document defines family and domestic violence as ‘conduct that is violent, threatening, coercive or controlling, or intended to cause the family or household member to be fearful’.[3] This can include conduct relevant to elder abuse such as economic (financial) abuse; emotional or psychological abuse; and serious neglect where there is a relationship of dependence.[4] It also includes relationships involving carers.[5] The key aim of the strategy is, however, to identify and respond to women and children in situations of domestic violence.[6]

10.8       Welfare Rights stakeholders have advised that the strategy may not facilitate the development of appropriate policies to prevent, identify and respond to the abuse of older persons. The Welfare Rights Centre (WRC) observed, for example, that despite the reference to carers of older persons, the strategy document ‘fails to directly mention or refer to elder abuse’.[7] This approach is reflected in the Guide to Social Security Law, in which the National Welfare Rights Network pointed to inadequate coverage of elder abuse, and suggested that a more ‘comprehensive explanation of elder abuse is warranted’.[8]

10.9       The WRC suggested that the ALRC seek submissions on whether the Family and Domestic Violence Strategy should include specific reference to elder abuse and appropriate responses, or whether a discrete elder abuse strategy needs to be developed.[9]

10.10   The ALRC supports the development of an elder abuse strategy. A discrete strategy should increase the attention given to the circumstances that can lead to the abuse of older persons and facilitate improved responses in legal frameworks. A strategy that expressly addresses the abuse of older persons would provide a lens through which Government could review processes, laws and legal frameworks to ensure that social security output protects older persons and identifies and responds to older persons experiencing, or at risk of, abuse. The elder abuse strategy would complement and sit within the proposed National Plan, discussed in Chapter 2.