A change in the way aged care staff are now required to assess sexual abuse of residents is likely to contribute to under-reporting of the crime and at worst, may silence abuse victims.
Having staff categorise the seriousness of an incident, as obligated under the serious incident response scheme (SIRS), is highly subjective and could lead to incidents not being reported to police, despite a serious crime having been committed.
Priority 1 incidents are required to be reported to the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission within 24 hours, while priority 2 are reportable to the regulator within 30 days.
However, incident classification should not affect the timeframe that incidents are reported to the police, but this is not clear to aged care staff.
According to the reporting procedure, the abuse of residents by staff who have committed a sexual assault can be classified as “non-urgent”.
This is because the regulator asks staff to determine the impact of the incident on the victim whether there are “reasonable grounds to report the incident to the police”.
Astonishingly, a 2019 KPMG study of the regulator’s reporting system found almost 60% of aged care staff considered a sexual assault survivor had experienced no physical or psychological impact after being raped or sexually assaulted.
It defies logic that staff reported the impact as “minor and resolved without formal interventions” in one-third of cases. It also appeared that none of the survivors received any formal interventions post-assault.
The study also revealed that only three of the 1,259 priority 1 incidents were reported to the police.
The regulator has stated that there is an expectation that approved providers will report these incidents to police and that the inclusion of the question, “Are there reasonable grounds to report the incident to the police?” helps that approach.
But the addition of this question is not reassuring. It assumes the aged care workforce will understand what constitutes reasonable grounds to report to police.
This assumption ignores both the evidence from the Aged Care Royal Commission about our already inadequately trained aged care workforce and the confronting results from the 2019 report.
The regulator is silent on any guidance to determine reasonable police reporting grounds.
Aged care staff are not qualified for this task and should not bear this responsibility. Asking aged care staff to make decisions that require the expertise of police is foolhardy and dangerous.
The regulator should explicitly require all criminal incidents to be reported to the police immediately, instead of imposing vague subjective decision-making on aged care staff.
Staff and residents are unlikely to report all criminal acts due to fear of being disbelieved, the incident considered as not being “serious enough” or that there is not enough evidence.
Becoming aware of incidents may cause bystander stress, and reporting may be daunting especially if an incident involves another senior or well-liked co-worker.
There are already multiple barriers to protecting older people in aged care homes from sexual assault.
These include a lack of staff education, an unwillingness to report, and incidents being diminished or attributed to behaviours driven by cognitive impairment.
Introducing measures that diminish the experiences of older victim survivors for the sake of expediency is unfair, unreasonable and prevents older survivors pursuing justice.
Preventing sexual violence in aged care requires fixing known failures and moving towards developing solutions to protect residents from incidents ever occurring.
In any other population, all acts of sexual violence are abhorrent, so why does this not apply for aged care?
Sexual violence is a serious crime, no matter what age.
By Daisy Smith, Meghan Wright, Amelia Grossi and Joseph Ibrahim.
Ms Daisy Smith, Ms Meghan Wright and Ms Amelia Grossi are research assistants at Monash University’s Health, Law and Ageing Research Unit headed by Professor Joseph Ibrahim.
Republished with permission. Article originally appeared on The Age.