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What Is Institutional Abuse?

By Elizabeth West
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Institutional abuse is any kind of neglectful or abusive conduct, whether physical, sexual, or otherwise, that affects someone who is confined to an inpatient care facility. The most common victims are children, the elderly, adults with developmental disabilities, and people with mental illnesses. It typically occurs in hospitals, assisted living situations, and group homes. Many of these institutions have policies in place to prevent abuse, but it is often up to outside parties to monitor incidences.

Elderly persons in a long-term care facility are often victims of physical and verbal mistreatment and neglect. Overbilling and unscrupulous account management allows caregivers to exploit them financially. If the elderly person does not have family looking out for their interests, they may be subject to long-term institutional abuse. The stress can have serious effects on their health and well-being, and may contribute to early death.

Hospitalized children are frequently victims of institutional abuse because they are small and easy to control and intimidate. They typically don’t tell anyone when something is wrong and if they are severely disabled, may not have the ability to do so. Adults with mental issues or developmental problems often cannot look out for themselves and are not taken seriously when they do complain. Sexual exploitation, particularly of females, occurs in facilities where there are no safeguards to prevent it. In group homes and hospital wards where residents are ambulatory, they may abuse each other.

Caregivers become prone to institutional abuse due to workplace stressors, such as poor training or unsuitability for their positions. Facility overcrowding contributes to stress in the form of increased responsibilities, and institutional workers are often poorly paid. Background checks, if they are performed at all, sometimes fail to catch potential employees with criminal records or a history of abusive behavior. This leaves patients and residents vulnerable to them. Neglect, beatings, thefts, and murder have occurred.

Anyone with a relative who is in a long term care facility or group home, under long-term hospitalization, or has other interactions with caregivers on a regular basis should supervise them closely. Common signs of abuse include unexplained injuries, a change in the loved one’s personality, missing personal items or money from their room or home, and poor physical condition due to neglect. In the US, all states have ombudsmen, who act as advocates for people in long-term care facilities. Most countries have adopted regulations governing treatment of people who may become victims of institutional abuse.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1005593 — On Oct 02, 2021

How about a mother that puts you in the care of a felon who has a history of violence tendencies and she thinks it is funny?

By SarahGen — On Mar 18, 2014

@burcinc-- Have you thought about reporting the administrators and the employees engaging in abuse to authorities? This sort of thing cannot be ignored. It has to be reported.

By burcinc — On Mar 18, 2014

What if supervisors are aware of institutional abuse or are even a part of it?

I worked at a nursing home for some time and I have witnessed caretakers mistreating the elderly and even hitting them. Unfortunately, it was mostly ignored. Supervisors felt that the job was very difficult and demanding and that sometimes the employees ran out of patience while caring for the elderly. Some of the elderly had psychological issues in addition to other chronic illnesses and could not always control themselves or follow directions. But I don't think that any of this is a good excuse to abuse someone.

By stoneMason — On Mar 17, 2014

Unfortunately, anyone can become a victim of institutional abuse. And as the article described, many times, such victims are not able to defend themselves or their rights. That's why there has to be institutional measures that prevent abuse. Only those of high moral character should serve supervisory and management roles. Because I believe that institutional abuse can be prevented from the top down. A parent or guardian may not always be there to supervise and protect individuals who are under care at an institution. It's the responsibility of institutions to make sure that every individual is safe and treated well.

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