Curbing Elder Abuse: What's Been Helping, What's Needed
Why this elder advocate applauds efforts by the Trump administration and Congress
Friday, June 15, marks the 13 anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It’s held in support of the UN International Plan of Action, which acknowledges the significance of elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue and aims to provide an opportunity for communities to promote a better understanding of abuse and neglect of older persons.
So this is a good time to recognize the important work in combating elder abuse that’s happened in the past year and the challenges that lie ahead.
The Need for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day
The problem is staggering. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that one in 10 older adults is a victim of elder abuse. Previous studies have estimated that older adults lose $2.9 billion a year through financial abuse. And recent reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show that almost 50,000 people over 60 lost $342.5 million in 2017 to internet fraud and scams.
Worse, according to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, for every case of elder abuse reported, five go unreported. This reporting rate is even more troubling in financial abuse cases, with estimates of only one in 14 of those cases being reported.
The federal response to elder abuse has been steady, but painfully slow. It took until 2010 to pass an Elder Justice Act aimed at a more comprehensive and coordinated federal response. This was a full 36 years after Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.
The Trump Administration's Elder Abuse Focus
Currently, under the Trump administration, the focus has been to make elder abuse a “law and order” issue. This has resulted in important new initiatives and resources being committed, mainly through the Department of Justice.
In fact, that department recently conducted the largest elder fraud enforcement action in American history. The Elder Fraud Sweep culminated in the announcement of charges against more than 200 defendants for committing elder fraud schemes. The estimated one million victims and more than $500 million in resources stolen by these defendants is shocking, yet it is just the tip of the iceberg of financial exploitation.
The Department’s previous funding of the National White Collar Crime Center, and now its efforts to create law enforcement partnerships around the country, is particularly helpful in prosecuting perpetrators. The agency’s 10 regional Elder Justice Task Forces bringing together federal, state and local prosecutors, as well as law enforcement and other key stakeholders, are essential in the battle against a growing exploitation market.
Centralizing the Adult Protective Service System
Also worth noting are important actions from the Administration for Community Living (ACL), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ACL has used funding from the Elder Justice Initiative to create a home for Adult Protective Services (APS) and the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System, the first national APS system with centralized and improved data collection on elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation cases.
The Initiative also provides grants for elder abuse forensics, abuse education and prevention in Indian Country, addressing self-neglect and guardianship quality improvement efforts.
Two New Laws That Will Help
Congress has also stepped up its work in this area.
Most recently, President Trump signed into law the important bipartisan Senior Safe Act. This landmark law exempts financial institutions and their employees from liability when trained employees report potential exploitation of an older adult to a governmental agency. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Reps. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) are to be commended for their leadership on this bill.
Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) led the passage of the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, signed into law last year. Numerous provisions are now being put into place, including designating at least one Assistant U.S. Attorney be designated as an elder justice coordinator in each of the nation’s judicial districts and designating national elder justice coordinators at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.
Top 10 Financial Scams
The Senate Special Committee on Aging has also acted; it now has an updated Fraud Book detailing the top 10 financial scams and a hotline people can call to report fraud. The committee has also held numerous hearings on elder abuse and financial fraud in the past year.
Congressional appropriators also demonstrated bipartisan leadership for elder justice when passing the FY 2018 omnibus appropriation bill. Congress voted to increase funding for the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program by $1 million and the ACL Elder Justice Initiative by $2 million. The legislators also rejected the President’s call for the elimination of the Social Services Block Grant and funded it at $1.7 billion. The Elder Justice Coalition has asked Congress for further increases for these programs for FY 2019.
A New Elder Abuse Threat: Opioids
But there is now a new elder abuse threat that local, state and federal agencies are grappling with: the link between it and opioids. Growing numbers of older adults are misusing opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl and are becoming victims at the hands of those who seek to take, or misuse, their medications.
These challenges will require local, state and federal legislators to develop innovative solutions. And those solutions will likely require additional funding to relieve cash-strapped APS, governmental agencies and nonprofits.
Funding is needed at the local level, particularly in rural America, to develop protocols and systems to deal with older adults and exploitation related to opioid abuse. Current and future opioid resources going to states could have dedicated funding to address this problem. Resources could also be used to unite key public and private sector stakeholders for strategy development and information sharing. These meetings could lead to intra-agency agreements on data collection, data sharing and collaboration on referrals and response protocols.
Also, we need to train staffers in recognizing, documenting and intervening when elder abuse is linked to individuals with opioid addiction. Funding should be provided to train Older Americans Act program staff and caregivers on these issues.
Similarly, now is the time to develop materials, public service announcements, hotlines, senior center programs and other outreach to educate and empower older people so they can respond to the potential threats in their community and have safe contact numbers if an opioid-related situation arises.
What You Can Do
On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and every day, we must look honestly at this epidemic of abuse. Elder justice should be more than an aspiration. It helps define a good quality of life for an older adult, which can never be achieved while there is elder abuse. Its prevention must be our national mission.
Hundreds of activities are scheduled across the country to commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. As national coordinator of the bipartisan Elder Justice Coalition, I am pleased to be keynoting an event in Newburgh, N.Y. on June 15. You may want to find an event near you that’s aiming to help reduce elder abuse — and help make a stand.