‘If it was a 3yo there’d’ be outrage’: Advocates question why elderly woman remains unidentified

An aged care and disability advocacy group says it is outrageous and “distressing” that an elderly woman remains unidentified more than three weeks after she was left at a Sunshine Coast hospital.

Key points:

  • Though initially thought to be non-verbal, police say the woman has been communicating but is unable to say her name or where she’s from
  • Residents of the rural town Mooloolah, where it’s said she was found, have told the ABC they don’t believe she is a local
  • Queensland’s public advocate says she will take an “active interest” in what she describes as an unusual case

The woman was taken to the Nambour General Hospital on September 6 by a man who told police that he found her more than 20 kilometres away on Brandenburg Road at Mooloolah.

Police later spoke with the man and ruled out any wrongdoing.

The woman, believed to be in her 80s, was transferred to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH) and police have said that while she has begun conversing with staff, she has been unable to tell them who she is or consent to medical tests.

Despite media campaigns across the country over the last three weeks, her identity remains a mystery.

Geoff Rowe, the chief executive of Aged and Disability Advocacy (ADA ) Australia said it was a disgrace.

He said until he was contacted by the ABC at the end of last week, he was unaware that the woman remained in a hospital — without a name, or someone to advocate on her behalf.

“I find it quite distressing that three weeks after this woman has been left at a hospital we appear to be no further advanced in either identifying her or getting in to place some appropriate guardianship arrangements,” Mr Rowe said.

Geoff Rowe

ADA chief executive Geoff Rowe is shocked that the situation hasn’t been resolved after more than three weeks.(ABC News: David Lewis)

“While I’m sure there’s been good quality care provided to this woman, my concern is that there has been little done to progress this woman’s long-term care arrangements, or to even get resolution about who she is and where she’s come from.”

How guardianship process works

Mr Rowe says in a situation like this where a patient does not have capacity, the hospital would usually take the lead in organising guardianship arrangements so decisions can be made for them.

That would include an application to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) to grant a guardianship order to either an appropriate carer or the Office of the Public Guardian which could make accommodation and healthcare decisions, while decisions about a person’s administrative and financial matters could be assigned to the Public Trustee.

Security footage of a man in a cap, t-shirt and long pants with an elderly woman

A man, who has since spoken to the police, left the woman outside Nambour Hospital after finding her in a “distressed” state at Mooloolah.(ABC News: Supplied)

In a statement to the ABC, the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service declined to comment on whether it had already, or intended to make, an application to QCAT.

The ABC has approached QCAT for comment.

Mr Rowe said he was not aware why the woman had “stalled” in hospital. He said in lieu of her ability to give consent, having guardianship orders in place was paramount to her future care and human rights.

“And it will also allow a decision maker to make decisions regarding her long-term care and long-term living arrangements, particularly if we continue this current situation of not knowing who she is.”

After numerous press conferences, photos of the woman including a ring she was wearing, leads from the public and cross-checking missing persons’ files, Queensland Police acting Inspector Matt Robertson last week said, “we’ll start stepping back into the future because it’s not a police matter”.

Two men in black shirts with caps on their heads, standing in a butcher shop

Butchers Dean and Jacob Hume are among the Mooloolah locals who say they have never seen the woman.(ABC News: Tara Cassidy)

Public advocate taking ‘active interest’ in case

Mary Burgess, the Public Advocate of Queensland, said it was a “very unusual” case.

Ms Burgess, who was alerted to the case in recent days by the ABC, has authority under the Guardianship and Administration Act to deal with the systems in place designed to protect vulnerable people.

She does not act for individuals, but has vowed to take “an active interest” to ensure this matter progresses in the woman’s best interest.

Mary stands in what looks like an office and looks at the camera. She wears a top with geometric patterns and earrings.

Public Advocate of Queensland Mary Burgess says the public should be reassured steps are being taken to protect the woman.(ABC News: Anne Connolly)

“What’s happened here is that the systems, I think, have been in pause mode waiting for the appearance of family or people who might know this person, rather than stepping into this person’s life. Because it’s quite a significant intrusion on a person’s human rights to be suggesting that they can’t make their own decisions anymore.”

“It’s just been a case of waiting and watching, but … we haven’t had what everyone expected to have happen, where people who knew this person have come forward and helped identify her.”

Ms Burgess said given the duration of time the woman had remained in hospital, agencies had united to plan her care and support while protecting her interests.

“These processes are very private and … very personal. These aren’t matters that can really be discussed publicly,” she said.

A gold ring with intricate engraving.

Police hope the woman’s ring may help identify her.(Supplied: QPS)

Mr Rowe said Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia would be available to the woman as an independent advocate if required.

“Often the systems that have been put in place to protect people end up being barriers to resolution … people won’t share information because of the Privacy Act, people won’t make decisions because the person has a cognitive impairment and is not capable of making a decision,” he said.

The front of the new hospital.

The woman remains in the Sunshine Coast University Hospital.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

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