At its most basic financial abuse is very clear and straightforward. Criminal offences such as theft, fraud and extortion leave no room for doubt. They are plainly abusive. However there are other, rather more subtle examples of financial abuse, some of which are a lot more common in practice than we might like to think. As we go through the illustrations below please bear in mind the following principles:
People have the right to choose how to spend their money if they have the capacity to do so;
When people lack the capacity to make their own decisions their finances should be used in their best interests;
People should not be coerced into parting with their money;
Financial abuse is concerned with the disposal of resources as well as money.
One relatively common practice in social care involves trips out to amenities such as the cinema or other activities that involve payment. Service-users who require support to access community resources sometimes find themselves paying for their carers to accompany them out of their personal funds. If the pair stop off at a café whilst out shopping the service-user foots the total bill. If the service-user objects to this the result is simply that they don’t go to the cinema, the café or whatever any more. Everything costs the service-user twice as much as it normally would. It’s hard to think of this practice as anything other than an abusive, coercive contempt for the service-user and their financial situation.
Another ‘trick’ involves the ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘bogof’ promotions that can be found in supermarkets. There have been cases of financial abuse in which the service-user pays for their weekly shopping but the carer ‘acquires’ the free items. This is no different from buying an item at half price and taking the full cost of the item from the service-user. It’s theft, purely and simply. The service-user has bought the full price item and is therefore entitled to the free (actually they’ve really just bought two items at half price). It’s their property because they paid for it. This is not ‘a perk of the job’ – it’s financial abuse.
Several other interesting illustrations came to light during the infamous ‘North Cornwall’ inquiry in 2006. For example residents’ personal money was ‘pooled’ together and several ‘better off’ residents were subsiding others without their knowledge or consent. Residents’ personal finances were also used to pay for maintenance of the building they lived in even though they already paid rent sufficient for that purpose.
Perhaps the subtlest form of financial abuse in North Cornwall involved the way that residential buildings were managed. Staff used to control the lighting system to encourage residents to use particular areas in order to observe them more easily. The effect was that residents were unable to access various rooms they were paying rent for. If you were denied access to half the rooms in your home how would you feel about paying the full rate to live there?
Another extremely common problem involves relatives taking it upon themselves to control the finances of vulnerable people, perhaps with learning disabilities or other conditions, and then making decisions that do not really reflect the person’s best interests. For example:
Buying or giving exotic gifts for themselves or others;
Over-saving so that the individual is effectively penniless;
Preserving elderly relatives’ funds to maintain their own inheritance.
Of course the majority of carers do not abuse their relatives but some do. These people are just as liable to prosecution as anyone else. This liability remains whether or not they have formal authority under a power of attorney although the actual charges they face will probably vary.
About the Safeguarding series
This blog series first appeared on Stuart’s personal blog early in 2010. It has been reposted here as part of a process of ‘rationalisation’ in which work from several blogs has been removed and reposted on only two.