Wednesday 16 October 2013

Why Ah Ma needs protection from her son

By Andy Ho, The Straits Times, 15 Oct 2013

IN THE past three years, 8 per cent of all personal protection orders (PPOs) issued each year were taken out by parents against abusive offspring. This is an increase from 6 per cent of all PPOs issued annually in the previous three years.

As the elderly tend to be socially isolated, these PPO numbers may well under-represent the extent of the problem. With a rapidly ageing population in Singapore, elderly abuse looks set to become an increasingly important issue.

Abused parents may be too embarrassed to report the offence, think they will not be believed, or fear being put into a nursing home. They may also not want to alienate their offspring, or fear putting him or her in prison. Who would then perform the final rites when death comes?

Neighbours may also not report elder abuse if they deem the victim a competent adult who can report it if he or she chooses.

Even when reported, delays in reporting could impair the investigation of elder abuse claims. Over time, physical marks of injuries may fade. Also, the abuser may have had time and opportunity to induce or coerce witnesses not to testify against them.

Although elders now represent a growing at-risk group in Singapore, the issue of elder abuse receives scant public attention.

Unlike the advocacy for spousal abuse, that for elder abuse is a mere squeak. Elder abuse victims need help, but the level of awareness of this issue is abysmal, somewhat like that for, say, spousal abuse two decades ago.

Back then, intervention in spousal abuse was hamstrung by a dearth of empirical findings about its causes and also a lack of funding. But advocacy by activists including women's groups like AWARE, victims and academics garnered enough public attention that led to policy intervention by the state.

The same is needed for elder abuse today. Sadly, as a society, we have failed to highlight what elder abuse really is: a crime.

Of course, the law already provides for criminal penalties against "causing hurt", "wrongful confinement", "battery", "rape", "fraud", and so on. The law even provides enhanced penalties for offences against domestic helpers and racially or religiously motivated hate crimes. But there are none for elder abuse, despite the elderly forming a uniquely vulnerable group.

The abused elderly need advocates. Often physically frail, and sometimes cognitively impaired, and on various types of medication, victims of elder abuse need a voice.

Some may not be able to report crimes against themselves and may make poor witnesses in court even though, in many cases, they may be the only witness. Law enforcement officers or judges tinted by ageist attitudes may sub-consciously ascribe less weight to their testimony, leading to abusers getting off scot-free.

Right now, elder abusers can be prosecuted under various statutes. But a specific one covering elder abuse would precisely target abusers as criminals. Specific sentencing guidelines can then mandate stiffer penalties when older or more vulnerable victims are involved to underscore how despicable this crime really is.

Elder abuse incidents do get detected and reported in various medical and legal settings, but the system is too fragmented and the reporting sporadic.

The system would be more effective if there were a specific statute for elder abuse. Physicians, social workers, lawyers, clergy and others could be mandated under such a law to report suspected abuse. Such third parties could also be authorised to petition for PPOs in suspected cases.

Mandatory prosecution would free the victim of the burden of and blame for the move to prosecute. Abuse can also be made provable in court with objective clinical evidence of injury, even when the victim refuses to testify, as can often be the case.

If there is financial abuse of the elderly, the new law could make it easier for victims to recover assets taken away by their abusers.

It is high time for elder abuse to stop being seen as a private family matter which requires only social service remedies. Instead, it must be made incontrovertibly clear that it is a prosecutable crime. Making it a criminal justice issue would serve to communicate the public's abhorrence for and condemnation of elder abuse.

Indeed, this was what earlier moves to criminalise spousal abuse succeeded in doing. Making spousal abuse a crime was an expression of public opprobrium against it, reversing the traditional culture of acceptance of wife battering.

In that culture, wives were implicitly blamed for the violence they suffered at the hands of abusive husbands: either they provoked the man or they failed to placate him. Society turned a blind eye to that species of intimate violence, supposedly a private concern of families.

That attitude of keeping spousal violence private was overturned by the move to criminalise it.

Criminalising elder abuse can do the same. By putting the public spotlight on it, society sends a clear signal that it will not condone violence against an older person, and certainly not when that person is your parent or relative.

The abused elderly are suffering in silent desperation with no one to speak up for them. Will Parliament take up their cause? An Elder Justice Act is needed to uphold the elderly's right to be free from abuse and be treated with as much dignity as anyone else deserves.

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