VICTORIAN ELDER ABUSE, EUTHANASIA AND BURDEN OF PROOF
The following article was written by Paul Russell, Founder and Director of HOPE: preventing euthanasia and assisted suicide Inc.
Coercion and abuse of the elderly and infirm confirms that assisted suicide and euthanasia can never be made safe from abuse. The Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper reports on new information about elder abuse in Victorian nursing homes: According to new police statistics, in nursing homes last year there were more than 100 assaults almost 70 sexual assaults and 180 thefts reported. A spokeswoman for the Victorian Office of the Public Advocate said 60 per cent of cases brought to its attention involved financial abuse. “We also see significant numbers of cases where vulnerable older people have been physically, verbally, emotionally or sexually abused,” the spokeswoman said. “Usually the abuser is a relative, often a child or their spouse, but residents of aged care facilities are particularly vulnerable to abuse by the people who are supposed to care for them”
Given the nature of abuse, the data provided is likely to represent only a small percentage of the reality. Hitesh Patel, UK forensic partner at KPMG, commenting on their 2015 survey of financial abuse of the elderly commented that: “It’s also likely these cases are just the tip of the iceberg, as frauds of this nature often go unreported as embarrassed victims seek to ‘keep it in the family’ and ‘forgive and forget’. Nursing home abuses are not likely to be initiated by family members but by third parties charged with the care of the person. They are no less heinous and possibly more so. Cases have also been noted where people have deliberately targeted elderly people living alone for abuse. In 2014, The Australian reported on a case where a woman who systematically stole the assets of the person she was caring for to fuel a gambling habit and then murdered him to try and cover up.
In recent years various Australian parliaments have rightly devoted significant resources examining the problem of elder and disability abuse in our community. The South Australian Parliament created a Select Committee to examine Elder Abuse late in 2016. Abuse of elders cannot be separated from disability abuse simply because the frail aged have acquired age-related disabilities just as those with a degenerative illness accumulate disabilities as their illness progresses. In October last year in the context of a euthanasia debate, we heard from people living with disabilities about abuse, about discrimination and about the devaluing of their lives that draws them to genuinely fear the possibility of euthanasia and assisted suicide in such circumstances. In a very real sense, they were speaking up for elderly people as well.
Disability abuse and elder abuse are underpinned by ‘ableism’ and ‘ageism’. A Ministerial Advisory Committee’s inquiry in NSW last year put it this way: (read ‘Ageism’ as referring to both): Ageism, when combined with other disadvantage such as, poverty, disability, and cultural and linguistic diversity, may put some older people at greater risk of becoming victims of abuse. As ageist attitudes become entrenched in our culture, older people may internalise feelings of low self worth, become more passive and feel more dependent. Such perceptions can lead to older people believing that they deserve to be treated more poorly than others and avoid speaking up when experiencing abuse from family members or a caregiver. Many older people may not be willing to report elder abuse because of the isolation that comes from a lack of self-esteem and a feeling of invisibility.
Ageism can also affect our understanding of the prevalence and severity of elder abuse and cause many instances of abuse to go unnoticed. So, there’s been a cultural slide towards viewing elders and people with disability as ‘less than’. That can be a two-way street where disabled people and the elderly may take on a sense that they are somehow less worthy of the goods of life, of respect, self-determination etc. precisely because that’s how the community views their existence. Our elderly and frail already think they are burdens on their families and society. We’ve been subtly telling them that for years in one way or another. Take a look at any of the TV advertisements for funeral insurance plans that have the elderly people say: ‘because we don’t want to be a burden’. A clear message that our elders are burdens, or at least they may think they are.
We should applaud all and every effort by the authorities to stop the abuse of elderly and disabled people. But the law can only do so much, though the effort, every effort, is worth it. Sadly, so long as unscrupulous people exist, abuses in every form are likely to exist. We can and must make every effort, but we kid ourselves that the abuses will someday cease. Reading the New South Wales Parliamentary Committee report from last year I was struck and shocked by the many examples of abuse that were instigated or abetted by family members, carers and other professionals. It is not difficult to make the connection between this kind of abuse and the risks to the elderly and people living with disability of euthanasia and assisted suicide laws.
Yes, some coercion may be uncovered or suspected. Hopefully, in those cases the path to premature death might be averted. But just as the reported cases of elder abuse are understood to be only a small proportion of the total, it is naive in the extreme to believe that and supposed ‘safeguard’ system of euthanasia laws will ever uncover every subtle pressure, every history of abuse and mistreatment that might lead a person to genuinely believe that the assisted suicide option is best for their family. In elder abuse we are dealing with a modern phenomenon that is increasing proportionate to our ageing population. We did not legislate to create the opportunity for abuse and even legislating to try to stop it will not completely eradicate it.
With euthanasia and assisted suicide we would be extending the possibility of such uncovered abuse to the ultimate in abuse, premature death. We will have created the possibility that no checks and balances can possibly contain satisfactorily. Whether you consider this a significant risk or a lesser risk, it is still a risk. Our parliaments should never legislate to accept such risks, large or small, when doing so means they would be accepting that some people may die who really did not want to but took the path under abusive pressure. There is a burden of proof here; the precautionary principle lays the requirement of proof that a particular legislative model will eliminate such risks as a burden upon those proposing any law.
In Victoria right now, that burden sits with the Premier, Daniel Andrews. The parliamentary committee that reported last year ducked the issue, the new panel seems likely to be a rubber stamp. But it is ultimately to the Premier, his Attorney General and Health Minister who are working towards presenting a bill in July under government business, to make this case. Absent such proofs the Premier will be putting his own citizens at risk for the sake of an ideology driven by an elite few. No government should behave that way.
PARENT GROUP TO SEEK BANNING OF SPECIAL RELIGIOUS EDUCATION IN NSW
A parent group that successfully ousted church-run classes from public school class time in Victoria has turned its focus to NSW, but this time they are campaigning to get religion off public school premises altogether. The Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) group claimed victory in Victoria in 2015 when the state’s Minister for Education James Merlino announced that Special Religious Instruction was to be pushed out of school hours from 2016 and treated as an after-school elective. It was replaced with an in-school class about the major religions, secular humanism and ethics, taught by class teachers. Now the group is targeting NSW, where Special Religious Education (SRE) is delivered in class time by religious groups unless parents opt their child out.
Catherine Walsh from the Fairness in Religion in Schools group, a mother of three children at inner west Sydney high schools, said she was shocked when she found out SRE classes were not run or regulated by the Department of Education, despite their presence in the enrolment paperwork. She accused the department of negligently suspending its duty of care for children during the time they spend in SRE. “I believe that any program which requires the suspension of the department’s own policy and curriculum should not operate in public schools. To do so is to risk children’s protection and the department’s duty of care,” Ms Walsh said. Ms Walsh alleges SRE is in breach of the department’s Controversial Issues in Schools policy which prevents teachers or visitors from using schools to recruit students into partisan groups, among other things.
A spokesman for the department said religious education was part of the Education Act and said the policy did not apply to SRE teachers. He also said the department kept no central record of the number of students or schools that participated in SRE; and did not authorise or oversee the material taught. Religious providers authorise their own content and self-certify once a year that they are teaching with appropriate materials. “The department takes its duty of care to students seriously,” he said. Robyn Bernstein, who has a child at Sydney Secondary College, said she objected to religious groups of any persuasion having influence over public school curriculum and timetables and access to students. “Why should SRE be in class time?” she said. “There are hundreds of kids who participate in the school’s extra-curricular music and sports programs, which stay well clear of school hours.”
FIRIS is also concerned by a 2016 Queensland government review of the “Connect” materials used by several Christian faith groups to teach SRE, which found it contained inappropriate material that should be removed, “including content that may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours, such as the keeping and intentional hiding of secrets and the formation of ‘special friendships’ with adults.” The Anglican Diocese is one of the largest providers of Christian SRE, and the Archbishop of Sydney, Glenn Davies, is responsible for authorising Anglican SRE content in NSW including “Connect”. He confirmed the “Connect” material had been changed as recommended across all states after the Queensland review, and defended the importance of SRE in public schools, saying religious education taught by a person of faith was a key part of helping children understand religion.
“We’re in a multi-religious country and atheism is a very small part,” he said. “We don’t proselytise in religious education. That’s the accusation but that is not true. We present a history of the Bible, which is a very significant literary document in our culture. For the vast majority of parents who want their children in SRE it gives them the opportunity to have a broader education.” FIRIS describes itself a grassroots parents group, with 3000 Facebook followers. It argues that education about religion in public schools should instead be delivered by department teachers using materials developed by the department. It recently launched a modest crowdfunding campaign to fund brochures and outdoor banners, which was more than 50 per cent subscribed two days later.
The FIRIS group has been given a boost in its NSW campaign by inner west parents displeased by the expansion of SRE into the inner city Sydney Secondary College for the first time this year; and a contentious timetable change that put SRE in the middle of the day at Fort Street School last year. Some parents at both schools are irritated about the timetable change apparently forced by SRE. Hilary Bell, who has two children at Fort Street and is not connected with FIRIS, said she was told by the SRE provider in a phone call last year that there were eight students enrolled, out of a school population of 900. Under department policy, students not enrolled in SRE cannot have any other classes while SRE is on. This meant hundreds of Fort Street students were wasting time while just eight received SRE classes. “They’re sitting there doing nothing. They’re supposed to be studying.” Ms Bell said.
“Whenever you bring this up, people just shrug and say it’s the law, what can we do? I believe the law should change,” Ms Bell said. SRE is a politically contentious area of education policy. Under former education minister Adrian Piccoli the department’s primary school enrolment form was changed, so that parents marking a religion on the enrolment form would have their children automatically enrolled into SRE, without any advice being given about the alternative secular ethics program available in some schools. In high school, where there is no ethics option, parents must pro-actively opt out of SRE if they don’t want their children to participate. Then premier Mike Baird was forced to deny there had been a deal on the enrolment form changes done with the Christian Democrat MLC Reverend Fred Nile to secure passage of government legislation in the upper house.
GAMBLING REFORMS COULD PROVIDE VITAL RELIEF TO MANY FAMILIES
The Tasmanian Government has a genuine opportunity to lead the nation by responding to growing community concerns about addictive poker machine gambling. With a parliamentary inquiry into the gaming sector underway, calls from many organisations, including the Australian Christian Lobby, for significant reforms particularly surrounding the number, location and use of poker machines in the state is gathering momentum. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) is advocating one-dollar maximum bets, decreased Jackpot amounts and frequencies, slower spin rates and a reduction in the number of poker machines in Tasmania. In March last year the ACL invited parliamentarians to a special viewing of the documentary film, Ka-Ching, Pokie Nation, which exposes the methods the gambling industry employs to intentionally addict people to poker machines.
With the parliamentary committee receiving 147 submissions from individuals, community service groups, business and Government, gambling is clearly an issue where the community expects reform. The social ills caused by poker machine addiction are self-evident but now clearly backed by research, family violence and breakdown, neglect of children, increased risk of suicide not to mention the hidden economic cost to the Tasmanian economy. A survey conducted by Anglicare showed that 84% of Tasmanians ‘disagree’ that the Tasmanian community benefits from having poker machines in hotels and clubs, 66% ‘strongly disagree’. One in two people (50%) were of the view that poker machines should be ‘removed completely’. However, doubt remains about how committed the government is to supporting its most vulnerable citizens.