The lid must be lifted to root out financial abuse of vulnerable adults in Ireland – and safeguarding legislation put in place to tackle it.
That’s according to the National Safeguarding Committee (NSC) which today kicked off a nationwide public awareness campaign to encourage greater vigilance among the State, Financial and Nursing Home sectors as well as among family members and carers.
NSC Chairperson Patricia Rickard-Clarke said international research suggests that up to 10% of older adults may experience financial abuse.
1,645 cases of alleged adult financial abuse have been reported to the HSE National Safeguarding Office since it started collating data in January 2016 up to June 2017. This includes an increase of approximately 44% in the first half of 2017 compared to a similar period last year.
However, Ms Rickard-Clarke that these figures represent ‘reported cases’ – and present just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ on financial abuse in Ireland.
“Very large amounts of money are involved. For example, the State will pay out €7.2bn in older persons pensions this year. If 10% is subject to financial abuse then the scale of the issue becomes clear.
“The message this week from the National Safeguarding Committee is that adult safeguarding legislation is on its way and those appointed as Agents on behalf of vulnerable people must ensure that all of the person’s money is managed directly for their benefit, and for that purpose only.
“Furthermore, family members must have legal authority to access another person’s bank account, and be able account for how the money is spent. Any other use, without consent, is theft.” she said.
The campaign will include details of the subtle nature of financial abuse and the urgent need for the State, Financial Institutions, Post Offices, Nursing Homes, families and carers to recognise and tackle financial abuse of vulnerable adults.
Financial abuse can arise when due to reduced capacity a vulnerable adult signs over management of their finances to an appointed next of kin, or organisation responsible for their care (an Agent).
Once access to the person’s finances are signed to an Agent – there is currently no subsequent tracking of how that money is spent, or who benefits from it. While the vast majority of people are honest, it is estimated that 20% of Agents abuse their role.
Financial abuse can also occur when family members, who are not appointed Agents, assume control of a vulnerable person’s finances – by being added as a joint account holder, or having their pin number and using their bank card.
Ms Rickard-Clarke said financial abuse can be highly calculated, or can be very subtle: “In some cases financial abuse involves aggressive acts of theft, coercion, fraud or intimidation. However, it can also be subtle, and even unintended, as Agents or family members don’t not recognise their wrong doing.
“For example, it may involve quietly spending a portion of a person’s pension as a perceived ‘reward’ for helping with their care, or occasionally keeping change to cover personal expenses.”
“The legislation under development will seek to remove ambiguities and make it clear that any use of money, which is not clearly for the direct benefit of the vulnerable person or with their consent, is not acceptable. Financial abuse must be called out as theft and zero tolerance should apply,” Ms Rickard-Clarke said.
The NSC campaign aims to encourage the timely development of adult safeguarding legislation and called on all parties – the State, Financial Institutions, Nursing Homes and individuals to engage with and support this process.
“The NSC is calling on State Agencies to take leadership in introducing safeguards – and for this to extend to the financial, voluntary and community sectors, as well as for individuals. We need a cross-sector and cross-agency system which can ‘red flag’ and bring to account inappropriate uses of people’s finances.”
“This includes State Agencies tracking recipients of monies they pay out, financial institutions identifying inappropriate access to accounts and transparency from nursing homes when appointed as Agents.
“The legislation needs to include responsibility on all agencies and institutions to report identified cases to the Gardai, who then can prosecute wrongdoers, be they organisations or individuals.
Hearings on adult safeguarding are taking place this month at the Joint Oireachtas Heath Committee to scrutinise a draft Adult Safeguarding Bill 2017, put forward by Independent Senator Collette Kelleher. Measures to tackle financial abuse are included within the Bill which also includes for the establishment of an independent National Adult Safeguarding Authority.
Vulnerable adults include people living with dementia, mental health problems, physical disability or intellectual disability.
A dedicated campaign support number has been established by the HSE National Safeguarding Office (Tel. (061) 461 358) should people wish to report concerns about financial abuse.
The National Safeguarding Office works with nine regional HSE safeguarding teams which record and investigate alleged cases, including of financial abuse.
The NSC’s work has been informed by a Nationwide Public Opinion Survey by Red C earlier this year which found that:
* Half of all Irish adults say they have experienced the abuse of vulnerable adults either through being abused themselves or seeing somebody close to them abused.
* 2 in 5 people think vulnerable adults are badly treated
* 1 in 3 believes vulnerable adult abuse to be widespread.
The research findings indicated a very worrying prevalence of vulnerable adult abuse, uncertainty over what constitutes financial abuse, and a lack of knowledge of what to do when you become aware of the abuse of vulnerable adults.
Details of the safeguarding campaign and points of contact to report suspected cases are at