Sex crimes against the elderly - are they being ignored?

By Emma Forde & Claire Savage
File on 4

Elderly couple holding handsImage source, Thinkstock

For a long time, society did not want to believe child sex abuse was happening - but now are sex crimes against elderly victims being dismissed in the same way? File on 4 reveals new figures about the scale of alleged sex offences taking place in residential and nursing homes.

William and his wife of more than 30 years, Angela, are sitting in a garden enjoying singing their favourite songs together.

They sit closely next to each other, holding hands.

William and Angela are not their real names. They have been changed to protect their identities.

Although William can remember the songs, there is now much that he cannot recall about their daily lives since developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia 15 years ago.

Angela insists the condition has not affected their relationship. "I still love my husband very much and he always says I love you and that's so important," she says.

Pulling away

Angela cared for him at home until his needs increased and he moved into a local care home.

It was a few months later while away on holiday she started to fear something was wrong.

"I did wonder why he kept pulling away from me, not holding my hand or putting his arm around me. I just couldn't understand it. I put it down to having Alzheimer's and dementia."

But when they got back home after their break, the couple's lives were rocked when Angela received a telephone call from the care home.

"I had a call to say if the police could come and see me and I agreed to go to the home.

"I got there and then they explained to me that my husband had been sexually abused.

"It was the shock for me and I found it difficult to continue in the conversation and I remember feeling I was about to pass out and I asked to leave the room."

William was one of three elderly, vulnerable and mentally impaired residents who were sexually assaulted by a carer who worked in the residential home where they lived.

Christina Sethi, then aged 25, filmed herself sexually abusing them on her mobile phone. She was caught after the footage was found on a laptop that was handed into police.

She was convicted in August 2015 of five counts of sexual assault and jailed for 10 years - her sentence was later increased to 15 years by the Court of Appeal.

The residential home where Sethi worked cannot be named for legal reasons but it told the BBC that she had safeguarding training and a clean police record. They acknowledge what has happened has caused "distress and trauma".

A BBC investigation has found that instances of alleged sexual abuse in care settings are not uncommon.

Figures obtained by File on 4 under a Freedom of Information (FoI) request reveal more than 2,000 allegations of sexual offences, the majority sexual assaults, in adult care homes were made to UK police forces from 2013 to 2015.

'Frightening reflection'

Some 80% of UK forces responded to the FoI request asking how many sexual offences were recorded by the police at care, nursing and residential homes for adults.

The figures do not reveal the ages of the victims, but 70% of people living in these settings are aged 65 and over.

Gary FitzGerald, chief executive of the charity Action on Elder Abuse, said: "They are a frightening reflection of the reality on the ground that many of us don't want to accept is happening. People actually don't want to believe it can happen to older people in the first place."

The programme also obtained data from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) which monitors and regulates care homes in England about the number of allegations of sexual abuse it has recorded.

It was made aware of more than 6,000 "safeguarding concerns and alerts" at care homes between 2013 and 2015. These ranged from "inappropriate touching to more serious allegations".

Other residents were the most common alleged perpetrator, followed by an employee.

Image source, Thinkstock

Andrea Sutcliffe, CQC chief inspector of adult social care, said: "For older people in vulnerable circumstances to suffer in this way is particularly appalling.

"The people in charge of running care homes have a clear and statutory responsibility to make sure their residents are safe and are treated with dignity and respect.

"We know that the majority of care homes are good and their staff are dedicated and caring but sadly we know that this is not always the case."

Nadra Ahmed, executive chairwoman of the National Care Association which represents about 5,000 medium to small care homes, said: "I think there will be homes that may close their eyes to it but I think that's wrong.

"We need to be really clear as an industry that we make sure the people we care for are protected from every kind of abuse, that includes sexual abuse. We can't choose to decide not to deal with one type of abuse - if it's abuse, it's abuse."

'Incredibly concerning'

Ministers say they have introduced tougher inspections for care services and established Adult Safeguarding Boards to help protect vulnerable adults from abuse.

Minister for Community Health and Care for England David Mowat said: "Sexual assault is a horrific crime, and it is incredibly concerning that vulnerable older people are being attacked in what should be a safe environment.

"I urge care workers to be vigilant, act on their concerns and report all crimes to the police."

Meanwhile, William and Angela are trying to rebuild their lives but Angela says that is going to take time.

"I feel I've been violated myself. My husband has been an amazing husband, very loving, kind and caring. We're getting there but it's very difficult."

Listen to more on this story on File on 4, on Tuesday at 20:00 BST on BBC Radio 4.