Investigation gap

3.4          There are a number of avenues of intervention and response available for older persons experiencing abuse:

  • police may be called if a crime is suspected, or may exercise a discretionary power to conduct a welfare check;

  • ambulance services may be called if there is a medical emergency;

  • elder abuse helplines can provide information and referrals to relevant services;

  • advocacy services such as Seniors Rights Victoria and the Senior Rights Service in NSW may assist the older person; and

  • state and territory public advocates/guardians may investigate instances of elder abuse in limited circumstances, such as by guardians or administrators, or where the older person has impaired decision-making ability.[1]

3.5          However, as WA Police observed, older people may be reluctant to report elder abuse to police.[2] A study by the National Ageing and Research Institute found that participants who had sought assistance from Seniors Rights Victoria reported that some of the negative outcomes of intervening to address elder abuse related to fear for the welfare of the perpetrator, and a loss of the relationship with the perpetrator.[3] These concerns may be heightened when an older person has to report abuse to police.

3.6          Other avenues listed above are also subject to limitations. Elder abuse helplines, established in all states and territories, may only provide information or refer the caller to relevant services. They do not have the ability to investigate whether an older person is being abused. Advocacy services such as Seniors Rights Victoria, Senior Rights Service in NSW and Caxton Legal Centre in Queensland provide legal advice to older persons in relation to elder abuse. However, they are unable to act if they cannot speak with, and get instructions from, the older person themselves. In addition to applying only to a subset of older people, the investigative powers of public advocates/guardians also vary across states and territories, which can be confusing for older persons or concerned bystanders because, depending on the state or territory:

  • there may be no power to investigate;[4]

  • the person perpetrating the abuse must be the older person’s guardian or administrator; [5]

  • the power to investigate extends to circumstances where the person perpetrating the abuse is acting or purporting to act under an enduring power of attorney granted by the older person;[6]

  • there is a power to investigate if it would be appropriate to make or change a guardianship or financial administration order in relation to the older person;[7]

  • the older person has a physical, mental, psychological or intellectual disability, which gives rise to a need for protection from abuse, exploitation or neglect;[8] or

  • the power to investigate extends to circumstances where an older person does not freely and voluntarily make the decision not to seek assistance.[9]

3.7          In different jurisdictions, the power to investigate may be initiated by a direction from a tribunal,[10] by a complaint,[11] or is available on the public advocate or guardian’s own motion.[12] This causes additional confusion.

3.8          This creates an investigation gap, which may unnecessarily prolong the abuse suffered by an older person. Other than the limited power of investigation vested in public advocates/guardians, there is no body with the power to investigate where a person does not wish to go to the police. Filling the investigation gap requires, at a minimum, harmonising the powers of investigation of state and territory public advocates and guardians.