Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation, Part Two: What to Watch For and What is Being Done to Combat the Problem

This is the second article in a three-part series discussing Elder Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation. In Part One, we discussed the definitions for elder abuse and the prevalence of it in our society. In Part Two, we will discuss what to watch for in detecting the signs of elder abuse as well as identifying the situations in which our elderly citizens are most vulnerable to abuse.

You may be aware of the story surrounding the abuse of the famous actor, Mickey Rooney. Mr. Rooney suffered abuse mainly at the hands of his step-son, who physically abused him and financially abused him by misappropriating approximately $8.5 million. He did this by issuing himself majority stock in a production company started by Mr. Rooney and appointing himself as Treasurer of the company.  Before his death, Mr. Rooney testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging that his life had become unbearable. “I felt trapped, scared, used, and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless. For years I suffered silently. I could not muster the courage to seek the help I knew I needed,” he said.

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Elder abuse does not only happen to the rich and famous, but the story shows that it can happen in any situation in which an elder adult is vulnerable. Vulnerability can come in several different forms. If an elder adult is dependent on someone for their physical or financial well-being, this can sometimes open the door for abuse. A perpetrator may threaten to discontinue assisting them in order to manipulate the elder into meeting his or her demands. If an elder adult is suffering from a cognitive impairment, they may lose both their good financial judgment and their ability to detect and prevent exploitation.  If an elder adult is in poor physical health, they may not have the time or energy to review their financial statements, making detection of financial exploitation unlikely.

So who are the primary perpetrators of elder abuse? You may or may not be surprised to learn that it is those who are closest to us: family members, caregivers and fiduciaries. Often abuse at the hands of a family members goes unreported because the older adult is fearful of being placed in a nursing home, fearful that their only caregiver (the family member) may be removed from the home, and quite simply, ashamed. Dependence on or by the family member is a key indicator of the potential for abuse. Caregivers may create reliance and dependency on their services alone and then exploit their care recipients out of the idea that they have “earned” the extra compensation. Fiduciaries, such as agents under a Power of Attorney, have been known to abuse the powers granted to them under the document. For example, by using the power to make gifts, they could gift all of the elder adult’s assets to themselves.

Some of the warning signs of physical abuse include unexplained injuries, persistent physical pain and soreness, nutrition and hydration issues, and sleep disturbances. Some of the warning signs for psychological abuse are distress and depression, learned helplessness and posttraumatic stress disorder. For financial exploitation, watch out for the unexplained disappearance of funds, valuables, or personal belongings; excessive payment for care and/or services; the sudden appearance of previously uninvolved relatives and friends; a sudden change in a person’s power of attorney or Will; and checks no longer coming to the older adult’s home.

The Federal Government has attempted to begin addressing the problem by passing the Elder Justice Act, which authorizes a specific source of federal funds to address elder abuse, neglect and exploitation, but funding for the Act has never been approved. Similarly, the Social Services Block Grant, which is intended to be used for elder abuse victims, pales in comparison to federal support for other services. It is estimated that federal funding provides only $.89 per elder abuse victim, compared to $6,000 per child victim, or $240 per domestic violence victim.

The State of Virginia has made some legislative changes over the past several years to enhance the safety and well-being of older adults. These changes include: expanding the list of professionals who are required to report suspected elder abuse; requiring Local Department of Social Services (LDSS) to refer relevant information to the appropriate licensing, regulatory, or legal authority for action or investigation; authorizing LDSS, with informed consent, to take or request relevant photographs, video recordings, or medical imaging of the adult and his environment; expanding the list of Adult Protective Services (APS) situations in which law enforcement must be notified; authorizing civil penalties for cases of non-reporting by all mandated reporters of elder abuse; making financial exploitation a criminal offense; and removing the $50,000 threshold for prompting APS to report suspected financial exploitation to law enforcement.

In the next and final part of the series, we will discuss what you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones, and/or your clients from elder abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Kit Kat

Ask Kit Kat – Canine Pair

Hook Law Center: Kit Kat, what can you tell us about the unusual canine pair of a pit bull and a blind dachshund?

Kit Kat: Well, this is indeed an unusual pair. The pit bull’s name is Blue Dozer (age 6) and the blind dachshund’s (age 12) name is OJ. Sadly, their owner became homeless, and surrendered them to the Richmond, VA Animal Care and Control shelter. The Richmond shelter had instructed the adopting person to keep the pair together, because they were a devoted pair. Blue Dozer would lead the way, and OJ would follow behind. OJ can see some shadows, but in essence, were he a person, he would be considered legally blind.

On April 22, the shelter thought they had found the right person to take the pair. Two days later, however, OJ was found wandering along the side of a road. A Good Samaritan turned him in to the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center near Staunton, VA. Staunton is about 2 hours from Richmond, but he was identified via microchip. When the adopting person was contacted, she said that someone had been watching OJ for them. She didn’t know how he got loose. She didn’t want to give up Blue Dozer, but she eventually reconsidered after receiving pressure to do so on social media. So the pair went back to the Richmond shelter where they are stabilizing.

The Richmond shelter will re-offer them for adoption, after a thorough screening process. Hundreds of people have made inquiries about the pair. The shelter will require the next adopter to sign a pledge that they not be separated. In the meantime, however, the two seem to be content. 10-pound OJ and 90-pound Blue Dozer, who always stay close to one another, are quite a sight! Christie Chipps Peters, director of the Richmond shelter says, they always try to find the right person to adopt a pet, however, sometimes we “cannot account for decisions that are made by citizens after adoption. In the end, we have to trust people—trust them to love the pets we have cared for and  trust them to do what is best.” (Dana Hedgpeth, “A blind dachshund and his guide dog, who were adopted then split up in Virginia, have been reunited,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2018)

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