OLM PROBE REVEALS THE ANTI-ABUSE LAW MAKING PROSECUTION DIFFICULT AND THE POSTCODE LOTTERY WHICH COULD MEAN ABUSE NOT INVESTIGATED
HUNDREDS of cases a year of carer abuse and neglect are going unpunished, despite police enquiries, according to an investigation by OlderLivingMatters.net, a free news website highlighting the problems of old age.
Freedom of Information requests made by OLM to police forces in England provide clear evidence that those responsible for crimes against older and vulnerable people are not being charged - in part because a law intended to crack down on abuse is actually frustrating attempts to prosecute abusers.
Campaigners believe thousands of abuse cases a year go un-investigated. These FOI responses show a key cause seems to be the law itself – which came into force in April 2015 and introduced criminal offences of care abuse and neglect.
But the FOI responses also, worryingly, suggest that the offence is not being pursued vigorously in all regions. Some 40 per cent of investigations, more than 460 in total, were actually conducted by just two police forces - Staffordshire and Suffolk - while 13 other forces admitted they had investigated fewer than 10 cases since the law was introduced.
OLM made FOI requests to 38 forces, 34 of which responded. These reveal that in two and half years there have been just 1,257 police investigations of abuse by carers and care providers. And the vast majority, 1,175, resulted in no charges.
Eight forces said they had not charged anyone under the law. Even the UK’s biggest force, the Metropolitan Police, which has more than 33,000 officers, has brought charges in only two cases since 2015. In total, just 73 people have been charged in England under the new laws. A further five were cautioned. But convictions were few, unless accused abusers pleaded guilty – or there was clear CCTV evidence.
It has proved even more difficult to bring to book care home owners, who preside over the homes where abuse is taking place. Just three care providers have been charged under the new law. The Met revealed that it has investigated 42 cases of provider abuse but has prosecuted in only one case.
Campaigners have long been worried about the extent of abuse of older people and a week rarely passes when a story of carer abuse is not in the headlines. Action on Elder Abuse released a survey in September indicating thousands of abuse cases could be going unpunished. The charity disclosed some 10 per cent of pensioners said they have been abused. It estimated that as many as 325,000 older people could be suffering physical abuse. But it calculated that fewer than one per cent of cases resulted in prosecution.
These FOI responses reveal that there is a failure to tackle abuse in care settings – including residential homes. And the numbers involved contrast sharply with domestic and child abuse cases. The most recent Crown Prosecution Service figures show in one year there were 13,282 police referrals of child abuse and 11,130 prosecutions and 117,000 police referrals of domestic abuse, resulting in 82,000 people being charged and 75,000 convicted. The conviction rate is more than 75 per cent, compared with a rate of six per cent, following police investigation of carer abuse – as shown by the FOI responses.
Nearly 400,000 older people live in care homes and many others are visited in their own homes by carers. But the FOI responses reveal, even if an investigation takes place, only a fraction of suspects are charged, let alone convicted. Many in the legal community believe the law itself is a significant barrier to prosecutions. The Courts and Criminal Justice Act 2015 sections 20 and 21 introduced specific crimes relating to ill-treatment and neglect by carers and care providers. Abusive carers could be jailed for up to five years and fined under the terms of the Act.
Section 20 states: It is an offence for an individual who has the care of another individual by virtue of being a care worker to ill-treat or wilfully to neglect that individual.
Section 21 states: A care provider commits an offence if
(a) an individual who has the care of another individual by virtue of being part of the care provider’s arrangements ill-treats or wilfully neglects that individual,
(b) the care provider’s activities are managed or organised in a way which amounts to a gross breach of a relevant duty of care owed by the care provider to the individual who is ill-treated or neglected
According to the Law Society Gazette in September 2015: ‘Sections 20 to 25 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act (CJCA) create important new offences.’
Insiders say, the burden of proof necessary to mount a prosecution is simply too great. And several police forces admitted in their responses that they have had to abandon dozens of cases entirely because of difficulties gathering sufficient evidence for a prosecution. Either the police themselves or, in some cases, the Crown Prosecution Service has pulled the plug because of 'evidential' difficulties.
The Greater Manchester force’s FOI response showed that it had carried out 69 investigations but, at the time of its response, but had charged only five carers and issued two cautions. GMP revealed it had been unable to pursue prosecutions in more than 60 per cent of cases because of ‘evidential’ difficulties. Meanwhile, Norfolk police’s response showed they had investigated 36 cases, involving 36 victims, but 10 cases had to be abandoned because of lack of evidence. Only one person had been charged in Norfolk and one cautioned.
Worryingly, the FOI responses highlight enormous disparity between forces in terms of action on abuse. Staffordshire and Suffolk police probed 241 and 224 cases respectively. Other forces had investigated far fewer cases. Only eight of the 34 forces had investigated 50 or more cases since the law was introduced. (Staffordshire admitted that it had charged just five people and four of those had pleaded guilty. Suffolk police, meanwhile, charged only two people.)
Police warned that many crimes can be committed by small numbers of individuals. But, as Greater Manchester and Norfolk revealed, this does not always account for the huge discrepancy in the number of investigations and the small number of people charged. And it does not explain either why some forces have investigated so few cases while neighbouring forces have investigated dozens. Derbyshire had investigated just four cases while nearby Northants had conducted enquiries into 36 incidents.
It could be that few resources have been made available to combat the crime in some force areas and, it is understood, the fact that prosecution is so difficult has proved a significant deterrant. Fewer than 10 investigations were mounted by police in Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, City of London, Cleveland, Derbyshire, Durham, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Leicestershire, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Warwickshire. Between them, these 13 authorities charged just 14 individuals in 30 months.
OLM is aware, however, that many cases never even get as far as the police. Concerns over neglect or abuse are usually raised in the first instance with the local authority social services department or the Care Quality Commission. Neither is principally concerned with pursuing individual cases. Their remit is mainly to improve quality of care. And they tend only to refer cases to the police in the most extreme circumstances, when successful prosecution is believed likely. Concerned families can, therefore, often find themselves feeling ‘brushed off’ over abuse concerns.
Families will be listened to, if they raised concerns with the CQC or the local authority. But OLM is aware that families can be told lessons have been learned and nothing else can or will be done because of lack of 'evidence'. In the highly-unusual event that the police are brought in, even then relatives can find the chance of a prosecution is slight.
At the heart of the prosecution problem is that abuse generally takes place behind closed doors and it can be hard to identify the abuser and gather evidence for a prosecution – unless a family has installed CCTV or a carer is prepared to turn whistle-blower. Any records that may exist can be easily destroyed by perpetrators or, as is often the case, the records are so poor they undermine attempts to mount a prosecution. However, campaigners point out, prosecutions are mounted in cases of child abuse and domestic abuse, where there can be 'evidence' problems.
In children’s homes and schools strict rules are in place to combat abuse and promote safety. Specified numbers of qualified staff must be present at all times and schools and nurseries are acutely aware of their responsibilities. But this is not the case for older people, where there is no rule for staffing or even for qualifications. Anyone can be employed as a carer. And abuse cases are reliant on accurate records being kept by the very staff – often poorly paid and poorly trained – who are the alleged abusers.
An OLM spokesperson said: ‘It is a disgrace that older and vulnerable people are subject to criminal abuse and neglect while the authorities appear powerless to prosecute their abusers – even in cases of serious harm, injury and, even, death.
‘These Freedom of Information responses shine a very worrying light on what we, as a country, are prepared to allow to happen to our most vulnerable citizens. Imagine if this were children – or even animals.
‘Immediate action is needed to rewrite the law, prioritise such cases and, if necessary, to introduce mandatory CCTV in care settings. Only by introducing daylight, will this abuse stop. Tougher regulation of care and carers is essential.’
Table of responses in PDF form here