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'Up to 10% of older Irish people are victims of financial abuse'

We need to face up to the reality of this situation. Financial abuse can happen anyone, writes Eileen O’Callaghan.

Eileen O'Callaghan Safeguarding Designated Officer, Sage

IN MY WORK as Safeguarding Designated Officer, I see two types of financial abuse: cases when it is callous and ruthless – and cases when family members or friends may be committing abuse that is more subtle, or even unintended.

A typical case we see is where we are contacted by a nursing home provider. A vulnerable resident, with limited capacity to manage their finances, has an unpaid nursing home bill of €30,000 plus and are often not informed of this.

A family member is the appointed agent and has not been using the person’s own money to pay for their care. Often this is a disability allowance payment which was seen by the family as “family income” rather than the person’s own money to use how and when they wish. Nursing home providers are often hesitant to get involved and so the person is made even more vulnerable.

Emotional abuse, control and neglect

In cases we see, financial abuse is often connected to emotional abuse, control and neglect. A usual case is a vulnerable person whose son or daughter has assumed control of their parents’ finances. This can start in a well-intentioned way, but over time the older person becomes less aware of their financial situation and spending.

Bank statements are withheld and the person ends up completely in the dark regarding their own finances and with little or no access to their own money. When the older person asks about their money they are often fobbed off and told not to worry.

Financial abuse can also be unwittingly facilitated by third parties such as financial institutions, post offices, or solicitors who have the wool pulled over their eyes by family or friends who cite the wishes of vulnerable adults, but are servicing their own benefit either in full or in part.

We often hear from vulnerable people who feel they were not made aware of the full implications of opening joint bank accounts with a family member, of signing over land or their home, or of making an Enduring Power of Attorney.

It is estimated across a range of international studies that financial abuse can apply in up to 10% of older people’s finances. The State will pay out €7.2bn in older persons pensions this year. If this rate is representative in Ireland then clearly very large amounts of money are involved.

This abuse can happen to anyone

We need to face up to the reality of this situation. Financial abuse can happen anyone – you, your mother, your uncle or your neighbour. All relevant parties – the State, financial institutions, post offices, nursing homes, health professionals, family members and carers have a role to play.

Routine audits and “red flagging” need to be carried out by institutions across all sectors. Where an account displays withdrawals which are unusual and cannot be evidenced with direct spend on or by the vulnerable person, then the institution should contact the person, suspend the account, suspend the account and notify their local HSE safeguarding and protection team. All agencies and service providers should have a legal responsibility to refer concerns to the HSE safeguarding team, of which there are nine nationwide.

Proper laws mandating cross-sector and agency tracking, monitoring and reporting are needed. This should be supported by granting the Gardaí the necessary enforcement and conviction powers. Sage has seen the negative effects of agencies and sectors working and operating in silos and simply not speaking to each other.

We also need to resource and train staff in identifying and dealing with financial abuse – with a clear legal framework on what is not acceptable and how to pursue and convict wrongdoing. From my experience, the process of protecting victims from financial abuse can be protracted, legalistic, involve difficult family dynamics, involve threats and complaints against staff identifying it and requires knowledge and courage on behalf of frontline staff.

Safeguarding legislation, to combat financial abuse, is on its way and currently being debated at the Oireachtas Health Committee. Family members who manage finances either as agents, or unofficially, on behalf of a vulnerable person need to stop and think about how they manage that money.

Are you taking the time to support the person to understand their finances? Is all of the money spent on the direct welfare of that person? If it is spent on an alternate use, is it with the person’s consent? It is timely to better recognise financial abuse – and for the public to play its role in rooting it out.

Legislation and a crackdown is coming and we need to call out financial abuse for what it is – theft.

Eileen O’Callaghan is Safeguarding Designated Officer at Sage – Support and Advocacy Service. Sage promotes and supports the rights of vulnerable adults and older people. For information, or guidance on reporting suspected cases of Financial Abuse, contact the HSE National Safeguarding Office at (061) 461 358. See safeguardingcommittee.ie or sageadvocacy.ie.

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About the author:

Eileen O'Callaghan  / Safeguarding Designated Officer, Sage

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