Call for safeguarding legislation to protect vulnerable adults

“Granny dumping” in nursing homes, pilfering from pensions, and lack of clear obligation on the State to protect vulnerable adults are among the reasons adult safeguarding legislation was needed, an Oireachtas committee heard.

There was also a need for vulnerable adults to have access to an independent advocate and for regulation of home care packages.

The discussion on adult safeguarding took place as the joint committee on health met to scrutinise the provisions of Independent Senator Colette Kelleher’s Adult Safeguarding Bill 2017, against an estimate — by UCD’s Dr Amanda Phelan — of 32,000 older people being abused in the last 12 months.

A central provision in the bill is the establishment of a National Adult Safeguarding Authority with the power to undertake investigations where there are reasonable grounds a vulnerable adult is at risk. It also provides for independent advocates.

The proposals are supported by the National Safeguarding Committee (NSC), SAGE support and advocacy service, and the HSE.

Patricia Rickard Clarke, chair of the NSC, said a vulnerable adult could “go years without assessment” as there was no obligation on state bodies to ascertain if they were being harmed.

She said there was “total informality” and a “huge gap” when it came to protecting vulnerable adults.

Pat Healy, HSE national director of social care, agreed that legislation was required. “Looking at it from my desk, the national [HSE safeguarding] policy we have needs a legislative basis.”

Moreover, the HSE could not undertake and coordinate adult safeguarding and protection in isolation and, in this respect, Mr Healy said the current policy “has clear constraints”.

He said legislation was needed “on an inter-agency and societal level in order to effect the necessary change”.

Ms Rickard Clarke said primary responsibility under the new legislation should lie with the Department of Health, but with specific responsibilities falling to the Department of Justice, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Finance.

She said there was currently “no exchange of information” between agencies that could flag elder financial abuse even though the state would pay out “€7.2m in state pensions this year, and the level of abuse that’s to be expected, even at 10%, is a large amount of money”.

She said legislation should be developed “on a cross-governmental, interagency and societal basis”. She said under childcare legislation, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, had the authority to act in relation to a child at risk but there was no agency with the same authority when it came to adults.

SAGE manager Mervyn Taylor emphasised the need for independent advocates for adults at risk. “The right to have your ‘voice’ heard and to participate in the making of decisions which affect you is a fundamental principle in a democratic society,” he said.

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