Sexual assault victims in residential aged care are mostly women with physical or cognitive impairments, a Victorian-based study has found.
The Monash University study examined the sexual assaults of women aged 65 years and older living in residential aged care in Victoria between 2000 and 2015 whose alleged incidents were referred to the Clinical Forensic Medicine Unit (CFMU) for examination.
It found that 28 residents were sexually assaulted during this period, however the study’s authors warned the real figure was likely higher.
The study found that the alleged victims were mostly women, cooperative, had a cognitive or physical impairment and that injuries were infrequent.
The identified perpetrators were equally divided between staff and residents and all male, according to the findings.
Co-author Professor Joe Ibrahim from Monash University’s Department of Forensic Medicine said the most important findings were the evidence on the occurrence of sexual assaults, small number of reports made to examine victims of assault, and a lack of programs to provide post-assault care.
“Providers and staff must be aware of and have policies and procedures in place to recognise, report and support residents,” Dr Ibrahim told Australian Ageing Agenda.
“There needs to be collective effort that overcomes the existing commercial or free market competition. This is an issue that affects all providers,” Dr Ibrahim said.
Dr Ibrahim said the actual number of sexual assaults during this period may be masked by under-reporting and lack of identification by aged care staff.
Aged care staff are responsible for reporting suspected allegations to the police, who contact a clinical forensic examiner to conduct a forensic medical examination.
Lead author Dr Lyndal Bugeja said between 2015 and 2016 the Commonwealth Department of Health was notified of 396 reports of alleged or suspected unlawful sexual contact on Australian aged care residents.
“While we found just 28 instances of sexual assault that were performed by the CFM, it is clear that sexual assault in nursing homes is hidden and under-acknowledged and that prevalence rates are very hard to ascertain,” she said.
The researchers call for standardised, validated and reliable data to be gathered prospectively across Australia and internationally.
Dr Ibrahim said there were many unresolved issues including incidence and levels of reporting, nature of investigations, responses required to assist the victim, and the interventions needed to prevent sexual assault.
He said “better data is vital” to the solution, which needs to include documenting incidents nationally and using the information for prevention.
“This means information about the victim and perpetrator. There needs to be standardisation of definitions and staff educated about these definitions, better reporting to police and those reports maintained as part of a serious incident system.
“We need to have the information about how investigations are done, outcomes, what facilities did to address the issue and programs for victims and their families following the assaults.”
The research The Epidemiology of Sexual Assault of Older Female Nursing Home Residents in Victoria Australia between 2000-2015 was published online in Legal Medicine on 10 November.
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