Earlier this month, a former employee of an aged care facility in the Blue Mountains was arrested and his employment terminated over alleged indecent assaults on several elderly women at the facility. This is an example of an issue commonly dealt with by aged care providers surrounding physical and sexual assault against care givers, residents and family members.
Subject to the regulations guiding their profession and operations, aged care staff and providers must raise any concerns about assaults on a resident by a staff member with authorities. However, in our experience, assault allegations in health and aged care facilities are often not prosecuted quickly and effectively. If an elderly person has a condition such as dementia, cognitive impairment is used by defence teams to prove reasonable doubt and the victim cannot submit evidence. This causes some immediate challenges for a provider:
- Family members are extremely distraught that justice has not been done or, conversely, wrongful allegations have been made.
- The staff members making the allegations (usually in good faith) are subject to intense scrutiny by investigators and, in the courtroom, lawyers. They require counselling and strong support.
- Employment of the alleged perpetrator cannot be terminated on the grounds of non-compliant behaviour, so a lengthy paid suspension, a payout or an unfair dismissal case looms large.
- Workforce culture is destablised, affecting other staff in the performance of their duties.
The Aged Care Act defines reportable assaults as those that involve any use of unreasonable force and any unlawful sexual act. This broad definition covers physical aggression including kicking, punching, pushing as well as indecent sexual assault including rape and other acts of a sexual nature inflicted on a person without their consent. When older people are involved, questions surrounding cognitive impairment and the capacity for a person to consent may arise. The Department of Health’s flowchart provides effective guidance on the reporting procedure following an alleged assault.
When assaults happen within aged care facilities, questions are raised about the aged care provider’s policies and procedures on how they care for the safety of their residents and protect them from harm. The aged care facility’s ability to deliver the standard of quality care expected by society for some of the most vulnerable members of society is called into question. Aged care facilities exist because the community believes in caring for its elders. When aged care facilities fail to respond appropriately and sensitively to an incident of assault, stakeholders lose trust in the facility and its genuine care for its residents.
It is about more than reputation management. A bad reputation will not irreparably damage a company but poor stakeholder management will.
Aged care providers must build stakeholder trust, loyalty and support 365 days of the year. Good issues management strategies ensure that stakeholders, who already deeply value the facility’s contribution to society, are well informed and continue to support the facility during a difficult time. People will be less quick to judge.
A good issues management strategy will link the operational and legal response to communications response strategy. Communicators work closely with police investigators, government and Aged Care Quality Agency representatives. The company’s internal investigative process is initiated and communicated; milestones are set at which to share findings. Policy and practice reviews are essential, regardless of any breach of compliance.
Planned responses ensure the aged care provider is ready to protect resident and family wellbeing, demonstrating empathy and control – both so important to stablising a tense situation. Staff are encouraged that the company has been swift to protect residents and employees. Policy and procedure reviews clarify the determination of the company that an assault will not happen again.
An issues management strategy and plan is a critical form of insurance, not just for brand equity but also operational resilience.