Montreal police looking to share results of project to counter elder abuse

MONTREAL – Police in Montreal are implementing a new model to train officers to combat elder abuse and are hoping to share the results of their research with other Canadian law-enforcement agencies.

As of May 5, all front-line Montreal police officers will receive training on how to identify and follow up on signs of mistreatment of seniors, even in non-criminal cases.

The intervention model was developed over the last three years by the city’s police force and the provincially funded Research Chair on Mistreatment of Older Adults at the Universite de Sherbrooke, which received a federal grant to study the issue in 2013.

In a departure from previous protocol, officers who spot signs of mistreatment are required to pull seniors aside for gentle questioning and make a report even when nothing criminal has occurred.
The cases are then investigated by community relations officers or referred to community or social services.

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READ MORE: An invisible crime: Seniors financial abuse

Instead of training a small unit of officers to specialize in the mistreatment of seniors – as many forces do – this model calls for an across-the-board approach where all officers and responders are
given training sessions, guides for intervening and a reference package that includes a list of local community resources.

The model was implemented in a few of the city’s police stations last year as a pilot project.

Miguel Alston, the Montreal police officer in charge of the project, says the program has already led to an increase in the number of reported cases of mistreatment.

As an example, one officer recently decided to investigate after feeling something “wasn’t quite right” about the sight of an elderly man with a young woman at an ATM.

In another instance, an officer on a domestic call subdued a suspect and became suspicious when he found the man carrying a credit card in his mother’s name. Both turned out to be cases of exploitation, Alston said.

He said his officers were surprised at first at having to conduct questioning and make reports in non-criminal cases, but they came around after learning the extent of elder abuse.

“(The training) awakens officers to detect situations of mistreatment,” he said. “We don’t take charge of every case but we make sure that if there’s mistreatment there will be a follow-up.”

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The police are now working on a training manual that can be shared with other Canadian law-enforcement agencies, including the 46 forces they made contact with during the research phase.

Different police services contacted by The Canadian Press each take a slightly different approach to the problem of senior mistreatment.

In Winnipeg, cases are handled by a “vulnerable persons unit” comprised of a supervisor, a constable with a social work background and a city social worker, says Det.-Sgt. Nathan Kocis.

Other police forces have specialized units where a handful of officers are trained to follow up on reported cases, often in conjunction with health and social services.

Lethbridge, Alta., has developed a response network in which police and several other agencies, including banks, collaborate to address and resolve files.

“As you know elder abuse is very complex and may need multiple agencies working together to stop the abuse and resolve the issue,” Lethbridge police spokesman Les Vonkeman wrote in an email.

The head of the research chair overseeing the project says police officers are uniquely positioned to detect elder abuse because they, unlike health and social services, often enter people’s homes when answering calls.

“A lot of times those people are not necessarily known by other (social) services,” said the Universite de Sherbrooke’s Marie Beaulieu. “(Police officers) can really get in contact with seniors.”

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Beaulieu says mistreated seniors can be reluctant to lay charges because the perpetrator is often a family member or because they feel shame or fear a loss of autonomy.

The project began with 18 months of research into established anti-elder abuse practices across the country, and Beaulieu said she was surprised by how little formal structure was in place.

“We thought we would find a lot of material, and not that much was published regarding police models on elder abuse,” she said.

Beaulieu believes a similar model can be used to develop police practices for dealing with other vulnerable groups, such as the homeless or those suffering from mental illness.

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