Report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women – Abuse of Older Women, May 2012
24 August 2012
By Alison Taylor
24 August 2012—The Standing Committee on the Status of Women (“the Committee”) has published its report on the Abuse of Older Women. In preparing this report the Committee received evidence from 30 expert witnesses across Canada ranging from health agencies, elder law groups and federal and provincial police departments to women’s networks and specialized elder abuse prevention networks. Click here to access the Report from the Parliament of Canada’s website. The list of witnesses who participated at the hearings can be found at Appendix B of the Report.
On November 1, 2011 CCEL National Director provided a submission to the Committee. Her comments were posted earlier on the BCLI blog. In these submissions CCEL identified areas of concern and offered recommendations where the federal government could take a leadership role in furthering policy and program developments with respect to abuse of older women. Click here to read this blog entry and the CCEL submission.
The Committee makes a number of references to CCEL’s submissions in its report and draws from these submissions in making its own recommendations.
The Report and its key themes are summarized below.
The Committee acknowledged the need to increase awareness of elder abuse. It noted that despite the existence of a number of promising awareness campaigns and initiatives, elder abuse continues to remain a hidden problem caused, in part, by the reluctance of older women to report abuse. The Committee concluded that awareness campaigns could be better targeted to increase their effectiveness and that there was a particular lack of awareness of services and information available to Aboriginal and immigrant communities. To increase awareness the Committee made the following recommendations:
Recommendation 1: That awareness programs be targeted across the age spectrum, including adult children and youth.
Recommendation 2: That awareness campaigns be customized for particular populations, including Aboriginal communities and recent immigrants to Canada.
The Committee found that there was a lack of a common definition of elder abuse across disciplines and a dearth of data with respect to the incidence and prevalence of elder abuse. It found that this lack of data was impacting the awareness raising efforts amongst affected groups and the wider public, and especially amongst those particularly vulnerable to abuse, such as immigrant groups, women with disabilities and First Nations women. The Committee acknowledged the importance of collecting data and statistics on abuse in order to ensure that the provision of services is targeted and adequate, and recommended the following:
Recommendation 3: That government encourage the development and adoption of common definitions for elder abuse as well as survey instruments so that accurate information can be collected about the incidence and prevalence of elder abuse in Canada.
Recommendation 4: That surveys on the incidence and prevalence of elder abuse in Canada include special attention to at-risk populations.
The Committee also recognized that heightened awareness of elder abuse in the community has resulted in, and will continue to result in, increased calls to police and service providers by victims and their families seeking assistance and information. Consequently, adequate resources are needed to meet this increased demand. The Committee recommended:
Recommendation 5: That awareness campaigns include information about available resources.
Further, citing CCEL’s position that the focus of resources should not prioritize protectionist goals at the expense of undermining women’s autonomy and capacity to make their own choices about what steps to take, the Committee recommended:
Recommendation 6: That service providers in agencies serving seniors work to empower senior women.
The Committee recognized that it was not just older women who lacked awareness of elder abuse issues, but that professionals (social workers, health professionals, lawyers) and front-line organizations (banks, hospitals) are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the needs of older clients, whose needs can be different to younger populations. The Committee cited CCEL’s submissions in this regard and recommended the following:
Recommendation 7: That steps be taken to encourage all senior-serving organizations, e.g., banks or hospitals, to be equipped to respond to an older person reporting abuse.
As part of its education mandate, the CCEL, in conjunction with the Centre for Elder Advocacy and Support, produced a training manual directly aimed at educating front-line workers on the prevention of financial abuse of older adults. Click here for further information on this project and to access a free copy of the manual, titled ‘Financial Literacy 102: A knowledge based approach to preventing financial abuse of older adults for senior-serving professionals’.
FORMS OF ABUSE
The Committee heard from witnesses that violence has a differential impact on women compared with men and that older women are more likely to be vulnerable to physical abuse than men. In addition, economic status and financial dependency could be contributors to abuse and to women’s reticence to report abuse. The Committee heard that spousal violence remains the most common form of violencerpetrated against elderly women, but that the particular needs of such women are often not dealt with adequately as a result of being caught between domestic violence services and more general elder abuse services. Consequently, the Committee recommended:
Recommendation 8: That conversations between the domestic violence and elder abuse support services be facilitated.
Recommendation 9: That shelters consider the needs of older women, including greater accessibility for mobility impairments.
Witnesses also advised the Committee that financial abuse is the most common form of elder abuse. Women were identified as more vulnerable to financial abuse than men due to their lower levels of financial literacy, their dependence on men for financial resources and the repercussions they may face if such abuse is reported. The Committee identified that ensuring the financial independence of older women was key to the prevention of abuse. The Committee made the following recommendations to address these issues:
Recommendation 10: That support be provided to encourage greater financial literacy among Canadians, especially those who are low income.
Recommendation 11: That the federal government work with provincial counterparts to ensure automatic application for the Guaranteed Income Supplement available to older women.
RESPONSES TO AND PREVENTION OF ABUSE
The Committee identified two broad themes on the general topic of prevention of abuse: the significant role for law enforcement and the importance of collaboration among agencies.
In terms of law enforcement and the existing legal regime, the Committee noted the CCEL’s submission that research showed how rarely age was mentioned in sentencing for crimes related to elder abuse, particularly in cases involving sexual assault. Further, the Committee noted that among police forces and lawyers there appeared to be a lack of knowledge about what remedies were attainable through existing legislation. The Committee recommended:
Recommendation 12: that Parliament support tougher sentences for those who abuse seniors.
Recommendation 13: That awareness be increased among law enforcement officials about how existing laws can be used in elder abuse cases.
The Committee heard evidence that the accessibility of the legal system itself (cost, complexity, lack of access to legal aid) is a barrier to women pursuing legal remedies to abuse, however no recommendations were made in this regard.
Challenges faced by law enforcement agencies were noted by the Committee to include the competing demand for resources, combined with the fact that officers may not be familiar with the complexities of elder abuse cases, often failing to see a crime in elder abuse. As well, many victims were unwilling to press charges against the perpetrators of abuse due to the existence of a family relationship. The Committee found that evidence indicated a need for police to collaborate with other service providers to find alternative ways to address the abuse. The Committee therefore recommended:
Recommendation 14: That police forces be encouraged to establish and maintain close connections with local service providers for the elderly.
In its concluding recommendation, the Committee again picked up on one of the key themes in CCEL’s submission with respect to balancing the protection of women and ensuring respect for their autonomy. The Committee notes CCEL’s point that a particular challenge with the legal approach to combating elder abuse is that remedies are often protective, taking control and power away from vulnerable women. The Committee therefore recommended:
Recommendation 15: That response to elder abuse respect “women’s autonomy and personal power”.
The Committee concluded by acknowledging the importance of inter-disciplinary collaboration among all partners in addressing the issue of elder abuse, as well as the need for locally determined solutions to issues of elder abuse in each community. It was clear from the witness evidence presented that a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to the issue is critical, with the Committee noting a call for an “aging strategy for Canada that highlights the challenges for older women,” [p. 16] or a “national approach to facilitating the needed coordination and collaboration” [p. 16], although no recommendation was made in this regard.