By Krista James, Canadian Centre for Elder Law

seniorsadvocatebc_hiddenandinvisible_nov2021_cover.pngOn December 8, the BC Seniors Advocate released a systemic review of elder abuse and neglect in British Columbia. The report Hidden and Invisible indicates elder abuse is on the rise. It draws a parallel with child abuse, finding BC’s policy regime deficient partly due to the lack of a centralized elder abuse reporting line. Media coverage has emphasized this clarion call to develop a single point of contact for reporting elder abuse and neglect in BC.

The problem with this messaging is that older people are not children. Consequently, they are entitled to both privacy and respect for their decision-making autonomy. 

BC’s Legal Framework for Elder Abuse Response

BC’s regime for elder abuse response is multi-faceted because abuse requires different kinds of responses depending on the older person’s unique circumstances, who is hurting them, and, perhaps most importantly, what the older person wants. 

Sometimes, for example, when we witness violence and an older person is at risk of immediate physical harm, we should dial 911. If a vulnerable adult—such as an older person living with advanced dementia—is being abused or neglected, and they cannot reach out for help, we may contact the relevant provincial health authority so they can assess the situation. 

In most situations, it is critical to talk to the older person about their situation and needs. For example, if we notice an older woman’s health is declining, and she is afraid of a family member who yells at her frequently, the better approach might be to keep in regular touch, let her know about helpful agencies, and help her call them when she is ready. We should provide information or support—if it is welcome—and honour her decision-making rights.

BC’s Adult Guardianship Act applies to abuse, neglect, and self-neglect of adults who are unable to seek support and assistance themselves due to restraint, disability, illness, or disease. The law allows anyone to report concerns to designated agencies (primarily the regional health authorities) and requires a response to every call. The law permits both voluntary and coercive action by the health authorities ranging from offering a tailored support and assistance plan to entering the premises to forcibly remove the vulnerable person, bring them to a safe place, and provide emergency care. 

The Adult Guardianship Act is one part of BC’s elder abuse legal framework. Sometimes elder abuse is a form of family violence. In these instances protection orders may be available under BC’s Family Law Act, including in situations where an older person is living with a family member with whom they are not in a spousal relationship. The police may be able to assist an older person to access a criminal protection order (called a peace bond or recognizance). The Public Guardian and Trustee may intervene if an adult does not have capacity to make their own decisions and needs immediate help. If the abuse occurs in long term care or assisted living, facilities are required to respond under the Community Care and Assisted Living Act. I map out the BC elder abuse framework in this presentation.

Why an 1-800 Elder Abuse Reporting Line is Problematic

The Adult Guardianship Act applies only to adults who cannot understand their situation or access help on their own because as a society we recognize that competent adults have a right to make their own choices, including living in risky situations. Decades of research on violence against women has taught us a lot about responding appropriately to relationship violence. Abuse robs a person of freedom. Best practices emphasize responses that do not further undermine autonomy. We highlight some of these best practices in our Practical Guide to Elder Abuse and Neglect Law in Canada.

The report of the Seniors Advocate notes that, based on responses to their survey, a very small number of British Columbians who witness elder abuse and neglect report the abuse. This data does not trouble me. Only a small number of instances of elder abuse and neglect call for a report to police or health authorities. 

Elder abuse always requires a response; however, it does not always require a report. The notion of a 1-800 reporting number is compelling because we want someone to come in and fix the problem, rescue this older person. The method is often anonymous; it allows us to pass the problem-solving onto someone else. 

In reality, supporting an older person who has experienced abuse is usually more complicated. As citizens, we all need to find ways to respectfully offer support to older people who are being abused. The It’s Not Right! Program offered by the BC Association of Community Response Networks provides free learning sessions to help British Columbians identify how to respond appropriately when they have concerns about an adult living in their community.

What we Need in BC

This province should prioritize funding to sustain and enhance the capacity of communities and agencies to support older people who experience abuse or neglect. BC should increase funding to non-profit community agencies to make robust victim assistance available to older people who need help, including to develop accessible transition housing that addresses their complex needs. Agencies like Seniors First BC, which offers information, advocacy, emotional support, and referrals to older people who are being abused or neglected, offer critical services. Their 1-800 line is open on weekdays 8am to 8pm and on weekends 10am to 5:30pm. They will take calls from people who are concerned about an older person being abused in BC, and help connect them to the appropriate services. 

The report of the Seniors Advocate contains important findings. It rightly calls for a review of the Adult Guardianship Act and an examination of how it has been implemented. It highlights the need for better elder abuse data collection, and enhanced training for people who respond to elder abuse in their work.

But a 1-800 line is not a panacea for this complex problem. A recent case involving the ongoing sexual abuse of a 76-year old women by her husband in Nova Scotia underscores the limitations of a mandatory reporting regime: reporting abuse of a vulnerable adult has been mandatory in Nova Scotia for decades. The emphasis on an integrated point of contact to report elder abuse in BC is misguided both because coercive though well-meaning third party action is rarely appropriate and different situations point to different kinds of support. In many situations, calling a 1-800 reporting line would be paternalistic, ageist, and harmful.

Krista James is the National Director of the Canadian Centre for Elder Law.


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