An Empirical Examination of Elder Abuse: A Review of files from the Elder Abuse Section of the Ottawa Police Service

1. Background

According to the 2011 Census, there are close to 5 million Canadians aged 65 and older (this demographic group is commonly referred to as seniors or elderly persons), growing 14% since 2006. A higher proportion of this demographic group is female. The proportion of Canadians over age 65 is expected to double from 13% of Canadians in 2001 to 25% over the next 25 years.Footnote 1 This demographic change will impact many segments of Canada’s public policy and social welfare structures, including the criminal justice system. For example, the proportion of both elderly victims of crime and offenders is predicted to increase over the next few years.Footnote 2

Although there is not one universally accepted definition of elder abuse, most definitions take into account the existence of a relationship between the abuser and the abused. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition, introduced in 2002, is one of the most widely recognised. The WHO describes elder abuse as “…a single or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within a relationship where there is an expectation of trust which causes harm or distress to an older person.”Footnote 3 Generally elder abuse refers to adults over 65; however, most elder abuse policies note that this term may be used for younger adults, particularly if the adult has reduced capacity or competence related to aging.

In Canada, constitutional jurisdiction in the area of elder abuse is shared between the provincial/territorial and federal governments, with programs and services primarily within provincial and territorial jurisdiction.There are certain categories of abuse, such as fraud, assault, sexual assault, uttering threats and criminal harassment, which are crimes under the Criminal Code. Some types of abuse and/or neglect are also offences under provincial and territorial legislation. The Criminal Code also includes a provision (section 718.2) that requires the court, when delivering a sentence, to take into account evidence that the offence was motivated by age- or disability-based bias, prejudice or hate, and whether, in committing the offence, the offender abused and/or neglected a position of trust or authority.

Seniors may be more vulnerable to particular types of crimes, such as telemarketing or internet fraud, misuse of power of attorney, and home renovation fraud. For example, findings from Project PhoneBustersFootnote 4 suggest that between 1996 and 2003, 84% of the total dollar loss through telemarketing prize and lottery occurrence was accounted for by victims 60 years and older.Footnote 5 In addition, 2009 police-reported data from Statistics Canada show that the rate of family violence against seniors has increased over the past several years, up 14% since 2004 (when the data became available). In 2009, 35% of senior victims of violent crime were victimized by a family member and another 35% were victimized by a friend or acquaintance.Footnote 6  There are studies that also show that elderly persons are at increased risk of abuse and/or neglect from their caregivers in institutional settings.Footnote 7

Professionals who work with abused older adults and researchers who specialize in gerontological issues have also highlighted the dramatic ways in which elder mistreatment can affect the health, safety and quality of life of older people. Elder abuse can have potentially devastating effects on the lives of older adults. Injuries sustained by a frail older adult can have much more tragic consequences than similar injuries inflicted on a younger person. Physical abuse can result in nursing home placement, permanent disability or even death. Financial exploitation can deprive older adults of resources needed for the necessities of life. Unlike younger people who lose assets or resources, older adults have less time and opportunity to recover from financial losses. An unexpected finding of a longitudinal study published in 1998 was that older adults who have been subjected to any form of mistreatment are three times more likely to die within three years than elders of similar age and medical and social circumstances who have not been mistreated.Footnote 8

As a result of the increased proportion of elderly persons in the criminal justice system, either as victims or offenders, various initiatives have been undertaken. For example, the Correctional Service of Canada opened its first Elder Division in 2001.Footnote 9 Similarly, police departments have created programs or sections that focus on elder abuse and/or neglect. For example, the Ottawa Police Service created an Elder Abuse Section in 2005 in order to investigate all allegations of elder abuse and vulnerable adult abuse when it involves a person in a position of trust, which is consistent with the definition employed by the WHO.

More recently, in May 2007, the Government of Canada created a National Seniors Council to give advice to the Government on matters of national importance to seniors. In addition, Bill C-36, Protecting Canada’s Seniors Act, came into force in early 2013. The bill “better protects seniors by ensuring tougher sentences for those who take advantage of elderly Canadians.” The amendments specify that “evidence that an offence had a significant impact on the victims due to their age – and other personal circumstances such as their health or financial situation – will now be considered an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes.”Footnote 10

1.1 Ottawa Police Elder Abuse Section

The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) was one of the first police forces in Canada to establish a specialized Elder Abuse Section in 2005. The mandate of the section is two-fold: to investigate all allegations of elder or vulnerable adult abuse where there is a relationship of trust/dependence between the victim and abuser, and to work with front-line service providers to educate them and the public to help raise awareness of elder abuse and support for seniors. In addition, the section works closely with the Ottawa Police Victim Crisis Unit which provides counseling and resources to victims both throughout and following a police investigation.Footnote 11

The elder abuse section adopts a specialized approach when dealing with elderly victims. This includes wearing plain clothes and using an unmarked vehicle when investigating incidents; and exploring alternative solutions, which often involves coordinating police involvement with appropriate health, social and community service agencies.

1.2 Purpose of Study

The purpose of this study was to review case files from the Elder Abuse Section in order to examine the extent and nature of incidents involving elderly victims that are reported to the police. This research project also reviews the outcomes of cases from the Elder Abuse Section involving elder abuse that move through the criminal justice system.

1.2.1 Research Questions

  • What are the characteristics of cases involving elder abuse that come to the attention of the Elder Abuse Section of the Ottawa Police Service?
    • Who are the accused and victims? What are the demographics of the accused and elderly victims?
    • What is the nature of the abuse? What types of charges are laid, and are any alternatives to charging being used?
  • What are some of the challenges police face when investigating elder abuse and/or neglect cases?
  • What are the outcomes (where recorded) of the elder abuse and/or neglect cases that come to the attention of the Elder Abuse Section of the Ottawa Police Service (referrals to support services, police, Crown and Court’s response)?

2. Methodology

This research involved a manual file review of cases from the OPS Elder Abuse Section. The intent was to review all files from the inception of the section in 2005 until the time of data coding in spring 2010. Ultimately, a sample of 531 files was obtained. This sample is sufficiently large to be representative of all files investigated by the Elder Abuse Section during the study period.

To facilitate data collection, a standardized coding sheet was developed by researchers from the Research and Statistics Division in collaboration with policy counsel from the Family, Children and Youth Section at the Department of Justice, as well as with officers from the Ottawa Police Service. A data coding contractor was hired to code electronic data extracted from the Ottawa Police Service electronic data system onto the standardized coding sheets. The data coder obtained security clearance with the Ottawa Police Service in order to gain access to the files. There were no ethical concerns with the project, as it involved analysis of secondary data and no personal identifiers were collected. Data was transferred from the coding sheets into a statistical program for analysis.

In addition, one semi-structured interview with two officers from the OPS Elder Abuse Section was conducted in the fall of 2011. The purpose of this interview was to better understand how the Elder Abuse Section works, in terms of handling investigations and the challenges officers face in dealing with elder abuse cases. Participants were asked a series of questions in order to guide the interview.

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