Cheated out of their savings
Abusive financial practices targeting the elderly are on the rise, but so are measures to protect vulnerable housing association residents. Alex Turner reports
Financial hardship is well documented at present - price hikes, job losses, welfare reforms and rent arrears - they’re all over the press. But in practice, few people enjoy admitting that they are having difficulty coping.
The silence is often deeper still when a struggle stems from financial abuse. This insidious menace includes practices such as theft, fraud, exploitation, pressure in connection with wills, or the misuse or misappropriation of property, possessions or benefits. All too often, it goes unreported.
Research by First Wessex highlights older residents are particularly at risk, with seven of the 10 financial abuse cases recorded by the housing association since April 2011 concerning people aged between 70 and 80.
Identifying and supporting financial abuse victims are key objectives behind safeguarding work being undertaken by First Wessex, which operates in Hampshire and Surrey, manages around 20,500 properties and delivers a cross-tenure floating support service.
Over the past two years, it has been reviewing policy and procedures to ensure service users’ needs are met.
Front line housing and support workers have been the first to receive specialised adult protection training in conjunction with partners Sitra and Care Training Direct - including how to recognise financial abuse cases. So what are the key lessons?
‘Economic abuse is difficult to spot, and staff need to be confident they’ve got the right tools,’ says Louise Cumberland, head of care and support at First Wessex. ‘It’s been around for a long time but we’re beginning to be more aware, so we’re picking up more cases.’
‘The “Mrs P” type of case is one we’re noticing more, where people are living in poverty, not eating well, yet you’ve got builders going in,’ she says (see box, left: The case of Mrs P). ‘It’s those signs you might not immediately notice, that our staff are being trained to spot.’
Warning signs also include poor living standards, despite owning assets, an unexplained or sudden inability to pay bills, unexplained or sudden withdrawal of money from accounts and an extraordinary interest in a vulnerable person’s finances by family members and other people.
Caroline Blackmore, safeguarding adults co-ordinator at Hampshire Council, one of First Wessex’s key partners, says financial abuse can wreak havoc for its victims.
‘All financial abuse is serious - it can also affect subjects emotionally and psychologically. In extreme cases it can lead to people losing homes, being heavily in debt, the risk of destitution and not being able to pay for the support they need.’
Ensuring service users avoid arrears and other debt problems is another reason First Wessex is concentrating on identifying victims - but it takes patience and the right skills to get tenants talking.
‘We recognise older people are vulnerable to economic abuse and may not share details of their financial situation,’ explains Ms Cumberland.
When First Wessex staff discover cases of financial abuse by rogue traders they report it to Ms Blakemore’s team at the local authority, and they then get Trading Standards involved.
However, it’s not just predatory building firms squeezing a living in the harsh economic climate that need to be dealt with - Ms Blackmore cites hoax lotteries and unsolicited phone calls as prime abuse sources. But she says family members, friends and carers may also be perpetrators - and while isolated individuals and those lacking mental capacity are most at risk, anyone can be vulnerable.
It’s with this in mind that First Wessex will be continuing to develop bespoke adult protection training over the next year. The housing association has already spent £6,108 training its care and support staff, sessions have included between eight and 60 people, but it hopes the whole 900-strong workforce will eventually be given the same know-how.
Ms Cumberland is in no doubt about the benefits of the approach. ‘We want to equip everyone going into people’s homes,’ she asserts.
‘Some of that’s to do with having relationships with safeguarding teams at the local authority, but the other part is to have an internal process, so when people recognise abuse we can pick it up, record it and get the right staff out there to deal with it.’
The case of ‘Mrs P’
First Wessex support advisor Wendy Young drew on her safeguarding training after receiving a referral from Gosport Voluntary Action asking her to support “Mrs P”, a resident in her eighties who needed help maintaining her home.
Ms Young soon realised it wasn’t only the property that needed putting in order.
‘I was sorting her paperwork and found she had no money,’
Ms Young recalls. ‘She couldn’t afford much to eat and payments were bouncing. One day I went to see her and someone was outside laying a driveway. I asked Mrs P how she’d pay for it and she said: ‘It’s OK, I’ve signed one of those direct debit things.’
It transpired Mrs P had signed repayment agreements for replacement windows, work on the outside of her house and a new kitchen. ‘Someone would ring and she’d think, “what a nice young man, he can come round to talk to me”, and she’d happily sign a form. These were big, well-known companies,’ reveals Ms Young.
Ms Young, who supports around 35 service users, contacted Hampshire Council’s adult services and managed to get Mrs P placed on their safeguarding list. She also enlisted the help of Hampshire Trading Standards, which operates a financial abuse safeguarding unit that has recouped more than £385,000 on behalf of victims of scams and rogue traders since being set up in 2008. The bulk of Mrs P’s £30,000 debt was written off.
Ms Young also helped with more personal actions, such as setting up a new bank account for Mrs P and arranging for a chain to be fitted to her door.
‘I put notes on her phone reminding her not to give her details to anyone, and to tell them only to come round when I’m here,’ she says. ‘So far, it’s working.’