A flurry of new research shows that elder abuse across the country is prevalent–while the criminal justice system is looking the other way. The Crime Report's Cara Tabachnick investigates.
Abuse of the elderly -including domestic violence and financial exploitation-is growing rapidly in an aging America, found recently released studies. Aggravated by financial strains and little public interest, social services have been curtailed for the elderly, and have limited law enforcement and prosecutions. Little has been done on the federal or state level to turn the situation around, advocates told The Crime Report.
The issue is complicated by the fact that many elders choose not to pursue legal redress because of the stress of being a witness, or out of shame, or simply because of ill health. As a consequence, elder abuse is largely under-reported. Candace Heisler, an elder-abuse expert and former San Francisco assistant district attorney, estimates that only between eight percent and 20 percent of elder-abuse cases are actually reported to the criminal justice system. The rest simply fall through the cracks.
Nevertheless, the number of reported cases suggests the gravity of the problem. Some 34,000 cases of elder abuse have been reported in New York alone so far this year, according to figures provided by New York State Senator Jeff Klein, whose office estimated this figure is likely well below the actual number of people affected.
Another study produced in conjunction with MetLife Mature Market Institute, the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA), and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, estimates seniors loose more than $2.6 billion per year as a result of scams and other forms of financial exploitation. And the most rigorous academic study documenting elder abuses in the community, “The National Elder Mistreatment Study,” published by psychologist Ronald Acierno, of the National Crime Victims Center at Medical University of South Carolina, found disturbing trends throughout.
” I am not saying the criminal justice system needs to lead the way, but at least we need a sea change, ” said Acierno who also said “things needed to be considered problematic from a criminal justice standpoint before they were considered social ills.”
With the U.S. Census Bureau projecting that one in five U.S. citizens will be 65 and older by 2030, a figure estimated to increase to 88.5 million in 2050- aging issues loom large on the nation's agenda. Unfortunately, national data on crimes against the elderly is spotty.
The last comprehensive survey was published in 2006, and had little impact on federal legislation. States currently take the lead, with a patchwork of laws and best practices related to handling elder abuse cases. Some states, such as California, have specific statues protecting adults 65 or older. Almost all states–45 states and the District of Columbia–have enacted mandatory abuse reporting statutes for elder abuse. But the wide variation, in reporting standards, as well as how each state defines who is an elder, has led to confusion, according to Heisler.
In an effort to stimulate national action, the Elder Justice Coalition, comprised of five major elder-abuse advocacy groups, introduced the Elder Justice Act in the Senate on April 2, 2009 and in the House on April 21, 2009. The bill, using material provided by 25 years of congressional hearings on elder abuse, promises to “create a combined law enforcement and public health approach to study, detect, treat, prosecute and, most importantly, prevent elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.”
New challenges; little support
Most elder-abuse experts agree that one of the biggest problems facing the aging community is financial exploitation. The infamous case of the late wealthy New York socialite Brooke Astor, whose son is currently on trial for neglect in an effort to swindle his mother out of $60 million dollars, is an outsized example of what they witness on a daily basis.
Acierno and his researchers found that 1 in 20 elder adults were suffering from financial exploitation, “making this type of mistreatment by trusted others unexpectedly common.” Surprisingly, they found that elders already involved with social service agencies were more likely to be victims of financial fraud.
“It would behoove social agencies to have financial counseling available and be more aware of financial misconduct in terms of oversight and advice,” said Acierno.
There are sadly relatively few examples of such agencies. One standout is the Area Agency on Aging (Region 1) in Maricopa County, Arizona. According to Robbin Coulon, Director of Legal Services, more than 50 percent of the agency's calls are in the area of financial exploitation. Many other cases are referred to them as a result of the staff's work in other social programs for the elderly. But many of those working with seniors have encountered a similar problem: elders tend not to pursue these cases through the criminal justice system because many of the financial abuses are perpetrated by friend and family members, according to researchers from the MetLife Mature Market Institute consortium.
In Maricopa County, Coulon's staffers have tried to address this issue through roundtables with law enforcement, the county district attorney's office and other area agencies–all aimed at finding ways to encourage seniors to be more forthright when they are the victims of crime.
“People need to step forward,” Coulon said. ” Victims should not be afraid of their cases being investigated. Family members to step forward to help and encourage them.”
But will such encouragement work? Elderly people are still not likely to report family members, says Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. That, she points out, has created a”gray area' for enforcement and for researchers.
In particular, elders who are being physically abused by loved ones rarely come forward, Acierno's study found. Of the 1.6 percent of elders that are physically abused, more than three-quarters are abused by family members, yet only 31 percent report the incident to police.
The Older Battered Woman Program at Greater Lynn Senior Services in Lynn, Massachusetts, is one of only a dozen around the country that specifically target women over 50 who have been victims of domestic violence.”A big part of what we do is educate the community on what elder abuse is, and on how prevalent it is,” says Katie Galenius, program director. But Galenius acknowledges that getting seniors to admit to having been victimized is hard.
Additionally some types of elder abuse are not defined by states as criminal conduct. Emotional neglect and mistreatment are common among elders, with Acierno finding 1 out of 20 responders suffering. However, many forms of emotional abuse, is not illegal, and there is no legal recourse which, the study notes, “assures its sustained frequency.”
Bridging the Gap
What can be done? Bonnie Brandl, director of the NationalClearing House on Abuse in Later Life, believes greater focus by the media, academics and public agencies on this growing, vulnerable population is fundamental.”The elder-abuse field is 15 years behind the domestic violence field,” she says.”Billions of dollars have rightfully been poured into domestic violence programs; now that needs to happen for elder abuse.”
One way to bridge the gap between criminal justice and elder abuse is better training of frontline police officers, according to Patrol Officer Michael LaRiviere, of the Salem, Massachusetts police force. LaRiviere, who has more than a decade of experience in investigating elder abuse as a specialized domestic violence officer, offers briefings and orientations to fellow officers around the country. But he admits he is only scratching the surface.
“Once you know what you are looking for, it can be easy to identify elder abuse cases, but now we don't have the tools, laws and training,” says LaRiviere. “Thousands of older adults are waiting for properly trained and equipped officers to come save them. We need to help them.”
Social service agencies agree that a closer focus by law enforcement agencies on the problem is crucial, particularly with the establishment of specialized investigative units that can lead to prosecution. “Then we might see some real prevention,” says Arizona's Coulon.
One other thing that advocates say needs to be acknowledged is how deeply abuse impacts elderly people. The seminal Lachs study in 1998 found that victims of elder abuse die sooner than if they had never been mistreated. The consensus of advocates, agencies and research is that dealing with the problem begins with recognition by local authorities as well as federal authorities that crime against the elderly is a top-of-the agenda criminal justice item. “The criminal justice system needs to figure out a way to think across systems,” says national elder-abuse expert Candace Heisler. “Not only to make victims safer, but meet their needs beyond safety.”
But experts also say that attention by the media is crucial. “This is a youth-orientated society,” says Bonnie Brandl. “When you don't have visibility, the abuse isn't a public issue, and the crimes against the elderly continue.”
Cara Tabachnick is the news editor at The Crime Report, and the Deputy Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice. She has written for numerous other publications, including, Newsday, The New York Post and Newsweek International.