As Torontonians get older, a new training course will help police parse the many shades of grey involved investigating crimes against seniors.
The Service has introduced a new five-day training course to educate officers on the indicators, factors and circumstances of elder abuse, along with the resources they can use to minimize and prevent it.
“We saw a real need to create this course to enhance our officers’ abilities to deal with the unique challenges they will encounter when they respond to calls for suspected elder abuse,” explains Detective Sergeant Cameron Field. “’This is the first course we have had that deals with this specific demographic. Seniors are a priority for the TPS and this initiative enhances our ability to better serve them.”
By 2021, there will be more people aged 65 and older in Toronto, than those under 15 years of age.
From fraud to neglect to physical, medical and sexual abuse, the senior population is vulnerable in many ways, explains Detective Kate Beveridge, the course facilitator at the Toronto Police College. She says the increase in the senior population will result in an increase in calls for service to police where seniors are victims of crime.
“We are going to see more types of these calls and so we need the training for it,” says Constable Patricia Fleischmann, who has worked as a vulnerable persons’ coordinator, in particular with the senior population in the city, for the last sixteen years and helped develop the course with Beveridge and Field.
“We have to equip our officers with as many tools in their back pocket as we can in dealing with this,” explains Beveridge.
The course is designed to help investigators help the elderly with a variety of responses, explains Beveridge.
We may get a call for one thing but there may be a multitude of other things happening in the background.
For example, she says the criminal route, in some cases, is not always the answer.
“The complexity of the issues need a variety of responses and it can’t always involve the police,” she says.
“The foremost reason is the care of the senior so, if we can refer them to an outside agency that continually checks on them and can assist them and restore their environment, then it is healthier for them,” she explains, saying the courtroom is not always the best way to resolve some forms of abuse. Partnering with community and government agencies is something the course does stress.
“Officers need to look at all of the facts and circumstances and we need to look at the big picture. What are we dealing with? We may get a call for one thing but there may be a multitude of other things happening in the background. If we just handle the one, we may miss all of those other things,” says Fleischmann.
For example, if an officer feels that the case is not criminal, but the senior does need some sort of care, they can link them to community agencies, such as the Community Care Access Centre (CCAC), which acts as a broker agency for the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care. The CCAC can connect the senior with hundreds of services catered to their need. Or, if an elderly person is in need of legal advice, they can be referred to the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.
“It’s about making the right linkages,” says Fleischmann, which, she says, come about when an officer gets to know the personal story, family history and background of a senior to help them deal with the situation. Something the course also teaches, for example, the different ways to interview elderly people.
Social isolation is a key factor in elder abuse… if a person is isolated from family, from friends, from the broader community, their faith community, then that individual is much more vulnerable to be taken advantage of.
Fleischmann says that some of the top age-related vulnerabilities seniors face are chronic illness, depression, dementia and a lack of social support, all of which can make them more vulnerable to abuse.
“Social isolation is a key factor in elder abuse… if a person is isolated from family, from friends, from the broader community, their faith community, then that individual is much more vulnerable to be taken advantage of,” she says.
An example of how social isolation can lead to abuse is the case of 94-year-old Norma Marshall, who lost her long-time cleaning lady and was on the lookout for a new one.
She didn’t have any family around, other than a nephew who lived in Ottawa. She hired a new cleaning lady and caregiver and, in a matter of months, Marshall was taken financial advantage of, moved out of her bedroom and into the living room, by the very family she had hired to work for her. She was saved because of a third-party call to police by a pharmacy delivery man who had known Marshall for many years and sensed something was wrong.
This, Fleischmann says, is something that the community need to be aware of – noticing changing behaviour in senior family members, friends and neighbours.
“Often, it is a third-party call that will lead police to cases of elder abuse,” she says.
Financial crimes are also on the rise as technology allows criminals to reach seniors without a face-to-face meeting.
Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic to utilize the internet, says Field, an experienced Financial Crimes investigator himself. “And, because people see them as vulnerable, criminals try harder to target them.”
The Council on Aging in the United States has called fraud against seniors the crime of the 21st century, as seniors have amassed great wealth and the crime is low-risk.
This generation of aging baby boomers is the generation that has amassed the greatest wealth than any other generation, making them a target-rich population, Beveridge goes on to explain.
Often, what makes the case complex is when it involves a family member, like a son or a daughter, suspected of being abusive to a parent, whether neglectful of their health needs or emptying their bank accounts.
In such circumstances, a senior may not want to report the crime for fear of losing contact with someone they care about, or losing their main caregiver. Often it may be up to the bank, a neighbour or an investigating officer to notice abuse indications.
“For a senior, it is that person that they unconditionally love. They are going to get separated from them and they are now not going to have somebody to take care of them,” says Beveridge.
Similarly, caregiver stress can be unintentional and, if there are signs of abuse, even though a child may be trying to do their best, it may be resolved without filing criminal charges.
Fleischmann says the Service is preparing for the evolving demographic and new reality facing the city.
“We have a hard-hitting, intensive program. It really is a living, breathing course,” says Fleischmann.