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New Act gives social workers more avenues to help vulnerable adults

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Vulnerable Adult Act can speed up access to such adults, says social worker

An elderly woman is suspected to have been mistreated by her daughter, who occasionally does not allow social workers to speak with her mother.

The daughter, who is in her 50s, had admitted to making her mother sleep on the floor, not allowing her to leave the flat or speak with anyone, not changing her diapers regularly and overdosing her on sleeping pills, among other acts, said senior social worker Kristine Lam.

It took three weeks for social workers to gain access to the mother, who is in her 80s.

That process could be shortened with powers under the new Vulnerable Adult Act (VAA), said Ms Lam, who is manager of Care Corner Project StART.

The Act came into force last month but has not been invoked, said the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

"The daughter knows that whatever she did was wrong, but she continued to do so," said Ms Lam.

"If we were unable to convince the daughter, we would likely have to continue to wait till the elderly woman gets to leave the flat, which may be weeks or months later.

"With VAA, we would be able to get entry earlier, minimising the risk to the mother's welfare."

The VAA, passed in Parliament last May, provides another avenue for social workers when other attempts at engaging the family of the adult have failed.

Other powers granted by the Act include a protection order to restrain abusers from inflicting further harm, and prohibiting them from entering such an adult's residence.

Guidelines have also been developed to clarify the process for social workers who need a court order to assess the well-being of vulnerable adults despite uncooperative family members.

The MSF has worked with medical professionals, social services, the police and the courts to develop procedures and assessment guides.

MSF officers have also received training on case assessments and interventions, including the protocols that should be adhered to if the VAA powers are invoked, said the ministry.

A vulnerable adult is an individual aged 18 or older who, because of a physical or mental infirmity, disability or incapacity, cannot protect himself from harm.

MSF said more than half of the vulnerable adults it has encountered are above 60 years old, with most being women.

Before the VAA was introduced, MSF had established the Adult Protective Service to protect vulnerable adults in 2015. It has handled about 110 cases a year involving vulnerable adults since then.

In many cases, it is the caregivers, including family members, that are the perpetrators, said MSF.

Ms Lam says the VAA should only be invoked as a last resort.

"Invoking the VAA should be a last resort because it is ultimately quite intrusive... However, there will be situations where family members will, for whatever reason, continue to use violence on the vulnerable person and refuse to work with community agencies. Then we might consider the possibility of applying for orders under the Act," she said.

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