By Yasmin Noone
The number of assaults alleged to have occurred in residential aged care facilities throughout the country has increased by almost 20 per cent in just one year, according to new figures released by the Department of Health and Ageing.
The ‘2010-11 Report on the Operation of the Aged Care Act 1997’, now available on the department’s website, states that the body received notification of 1,815 alleged reportable assaults in the past year.
The department also reported that of this figure, “1,499 were recorded as alleged unreasonable use of force, 284 as alleged unlawful sexual contact and 32 as both”.
The 2010/11 total marks an 18.02 per cent increase in the number of alleged assaults on the previous year, and almost a two-fold increase when compared to the 2007/08 figures.
In its report, the department states that it received information on alleged or suspected assaults on aged care residents through the usual channels – from providers, facility staff, residents and their families, and health professionals.
“All Australian government subsidised aged care homes must report incidents or allegations of sexual assault or serious physical assault,” the report states.
“In this context, ‘reportable assault’ is defined in the Act, and means unlawful sexual contact or unreasonable use of force that is inflicted on a person receiving residential care.
“Under these arrangements, Approved Providers are required to: report to the police and to the Department within 24 hours of receiving the allegation or suspicion of reportable assaults; take reasonable measures to ensure staff members report any suspicions or allegations of reportable assaults to the Approved Provider; take steps to protect the security of residents in the facility; take reasonable steps to protect the identity of any person who lodges a report; and keep consolidated records of all incidents involving allegations or suspicions of reportable assaults.”
Advocacy group for elderly and frail Australians, Aged Care Crisis, is concerned about the assault figures and believe the true number of cases could be even higher.
According to the organisation’s spokesperson, Lynda Saltarelli, this is because many abused residents would be either too fearful to tell anyone about an incident or they have diminished capacity and therefore the assault could go unreported.
Ms Saltarelli branded the assault figures as “extremely disturbing…given the fact there are only around 2,700 aged care facilities throughout the country”.
She also said that, despite the public release of these figures, consumers know very little about cases of abuse in residential aged care.
“Consumers are pretty much kept in the dark…We want to know about the number of substantiated cases of assaults, which have been confirmed, where the provider has been found to be in the wrong,” Ms Saltarelli said.
“None of that information is every published or recorded against a home’s performance.”
Ms Saltarelli believes families wanting to make informed choices are unable to do so.
“For example, it is still possible for a home to breach its responsibilities as an approved provider under the Aged Care Act, have serious complaints substantiated against it – including assaults – and yet still manage a perfect 44/44 point accreditation score and avoid any public scrutiny whatsoever.”
Most importantly, she said, consumers are also currently unaware about the steps taken by the provider to fix the problem.
“A provider may have made a genuine problem…Often the actions that a provider takes [after an incident] are quite telling.
“In order to achieve protection, community members must be able to see what the company or provider is capable of when no one is watching – not just when they have been given time to prepare for an inspection and not simply after providing a response to an adverse finding in order to stay in business.”
Aged Care Crisis has therefore called upon the Commonwealth to take appropriate steps to provide a more transparent and accountable aged care system that is structured, not in the providers, but in the consumer’s best interest.
“We need more transparency and accountability across the board, with a greater provision of information on [specific details] like, ‘Does the facility have sprinklers and air conditioning?… Are there enough staff at that facility and do they have the skills to do the job?’
“We don’t have that sort of disclosure that is needed for consumers to make informed choices.”
“We understand need for confidentiality with issues relating to abuse or complaints. But I guess what is important for families to see [are not the specific details of the incident] but how the assault or complaint was dealt with.
“You need to look at the matter from the perspective of family members. You wouldn’t want to put mum or dad in a home which has received a lot of complaints and has substantiated [not alleged] assaults. I certainly wouldn’t.
“You wouldn’t expect that sort of information to be concealed in the case of a kindergarten. In fact, it’d be an outrage if it was younger people [being abused].
“If providers are more open [about these incidents], there will initially be a bit of controversy. But, [on the other side when an incident occurs], the odds are stacked against family members and it’s terribly difficult for them to deal with. So you do have to look at it from their perspective.”
Ms Saltarelli said that in addition to more transparency and accountability, minimum and safe staffing ratios would go some way in protecting frail and older people in care.
But, she said unfortunately, there is “no simple one solution to answer the questions posed by these figures”.
“We are hopeful that the Minister [for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler] will listen to consumer’s voices and that the minister’s current consumer conversations will result in consumer feedback flowing back into meaningful reform.”