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Harper Lee’s Book: Stealth Case of Elder Abuse?

Perhaps. Here's what is clear: We need the Elder Justice Act.


Elder abuse tends to rise to national attention when its victim is famous and money is involved. That was the case with the now-deceased Brooke Astor and Mickey Rooney. A new potential case may involve the beloved author Harper Lee. 

Since it was announced that a version of Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, titled Go Set a Watchman, would be published this summer, questions and controversy have swirled. Why would Lee, who is 88 and resides in an Alabama assisted living facility, decide to publish this draft now, when she had famously promised that she would never publish another work? Why have all questions about the work been channeled through, and answered by, her lawyer and publisher? And is it a coincidence that Alice Lee, her sister and by all accounts protector, died shortly before the “discovery” of this manuscript? (For an excellent take on this, see this new New Yorker article.)

(MORE: Why Elder Financial Abuse is Such a Slippery Crime)

Lee's situation may not be a clear-cut case of elder abuse, but it certainly raises enough red flags that Adult Protective Services in Alabama is investigating fully.

Many Forms Of Abuse

To understand elder abuse is to recognize how many different forms it takes. It can be physical, sexual, emotional or psychological. It can involve neglect, self-neglect, abandonment or financial exploitation.

There are enough victims of elder financial abuse that one 2011 study concluded they lose $2.9 billion per year. Some say the number is much bigger — True Link Financial just released a report pointing to an estimated annual loss of more than $35 billion. (Next Avenue recently parsed those numbers for a more realistic picture of the problem.) And those are just based on the reported cases. A New York study said that for every case of elder abuse that's reported, 23 more go unreported.

Why Haven’t Allotted Funds Been Used?

For children, we have addressed the intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect, beginning in 1974 with the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. We have appropriately spent billions of dollars over the ensuing 40 years to protect our children. Congress also passed the Violence Against Women Act to combat domestic violence, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary of prevention and response to domestic violence survivors.

(MORE: Domestic Violence Can Worsen as Couples Age)

In 2010, the Elder Justice Act was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act. It was intended to provide funding for Adult Protective Services, to support the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program and to require the immediate reporting to law enforcement of crimes in a long-term care facility, among other provisions.

Now a full five years later, out of the $777 million authorized through 2014 for the Elder Justice Act, it has only received $4 million in direct funding from Congress and another $8 million from the Affordable Care Act. Is Congress in such denial about elder abuse to only agree to fund 1 percent of what it could have for elder justice? Is ageism once again on display in public policy?

This problem cannot be addressed without new dollars being provided. The key is that these are prevention dollars — the investment made in prevention gets a large return by lowering the costs needed to treat elder abuse victims. 

Protection For The Vulnerable

As another example of what the Elder Justice Act could do, the new dedicated funding it would provide for Adult Protective Services would be critical to investigate cases like Harper Lee’s. Without the dedicated funding, even well-known people like Lee may have trouble accessing services.

(MORE: 6 Ways to Nudge Congress to Help Older Americans)

Adult Protective Services workers and ombudsmen handle heavy caseloads with few funds and small staffs; they do extraordinary work, but need more funding to serve their clients thoroughly.

Is Lee in need of these services in the first place? It’s hard to say from the outside. In 2011, Alice Lee wrote in response to an incident regarding a biography of her sister, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident.”

We don’t know the full story behind Lee’s manuscript yet. But if Lee has dementia, as has been reported, her vulnerability would make her a prime example of one type of older adult who is more likely to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous people. One study found that close to 50 percent of people with dementia experience some kind of abuse. Further, older women are abused at a higher rate than older men, and abuse is more likely with each passing year.

Combat Abuse In All Forms

This is why the Elder Justice Act is important — it protects the most vulnerable of our society, whether they are well-known or not. The bipartisan Elder Justice Reauthorization Act of 2015, just introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), should be passed and should receive full funding to do what it was meant to do: aid the prevention, detection and response to elder abuse in all forms.

No matter what, elder justice advocates will continue to press forward. We can accomplish a great deal by better coordinating existing resources at the federal level. We know a number of federal agencies have some role in elder abuse prevention, but are they connected in any way? If they were, could it help us develop a more comprehensive federal response? Absolutely.

Ultimately, we live in the world of the scam de jour which targets isolated and vulnerable older adults and in some cases takes their life savings based on one phone call from a stranger. It is a reality we cannot deny. We must work to make everyone’s later years of life free from abuse, neglect and exploitation. That is truly elder justice.

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