State AGs Try to Tackle a Difficult Subject: Elder Abuse

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Beyond physical abuse and neglect, vulnerable senior citizens also face financial exploitation from their caregivers.

PORTLAND, Ore. — During remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General summer meeting on Tuesday, a federal official discussed the difficult work that state law enforcement officials and social service agencies face when it comes to curbing elder abuse in the communities they serve.

“It’s often an issue that’s relegated to a corner,” Lance Robinson, assistant secretary for aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the assembled state AGs and other law enforcement officials. With senior citizens now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population and the number of reported cases of elder abuse continuing to increase, it’s a policy challenge that isn’t going away.

What constitutes elder abuse can cover a range of actions coming of a person who has been entrusted with the care and well-being of a senior citizen, including physical violence, neglect and financial abuse.

Victims of elder abuse, Robinson said, are three times as likely to die prematurely.

“We can reduce the incidents and harm of elder abuse if we all work together,” Robinson said, noting there are federal resources available to state and local agencies. But making progress will require plenty of intergovernmental and interagency cooperation, he said.

Curbing elder abuse is the chosen policy initiative from NAAG’s current president, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who last week announced a new initiative in his state to train law enforcement officers and community members in how to spot potential cases of financial abuse of senior citizens.

The opioid abuse epidemic in many parts of the nation complicates the situation.

As Route Fifty reported earlier this year, some adult protective service agencies are overwhelmed and under-resourced to effectively deal with the financial exploitation of senior citizens as they investigate other types of elder abuse.

Taken as individual cases, stories of financial exploitation of the elderly are heartbreaking. APS caseworkers have seen seniors with their entire life savings wiped out, forced to leave their homes and left with few options. [Fairfield County, Ohio caseworker Mindy] VanBibber ... offered up the basic storyline of a financial exploitation case she was working on in August 2017: a grandchild convinced his grandmother that she needed him to help with her finances. She added him to her bank account, “and now we’re dealing with the aftermath of upwards of $23,000 missing,” said VanBibber.

But, when you consider the monetary losses associated with elder financial abuse across the county, the impact becomes even harder to fathom. In 2015, TrueLink Financial, a private financial services company, found that previous estimates of the problem were about 15 times too low. That 2015 report showed that across the country seniors lose roughly $36.5 billion each year to financial exploitation.

This is a problem with serious consequences. Truelink estimates that as many as 945,000 seniors are currently skipping meals as a result of financial abuse. According to the National Adult Protective Services Association, almost 1 in 10 seniors will wind up reliant on Medicaid as a direct result of their bank accounts being drained. And, NAPSA estimates that reporting levels are even lower for financial exploitation than they are for other types of elder abuse. Only one in 44 cases of financial abuse is ever reported.

Officials in Ohio don’t have a simple answer for why they’re seeing a spike in the number of cases and why those cases are different than they were before. While they can’t conclusively prove causation, many say they believe the rise in these types of cases and the increasing intensity of the state’s opioid epidemic are linked.

While many state law enforcement agencies and officials have zeroed in on elder abuse in their jurisdictions, the policy challenges are still very new to others and there’s a lot of work to be done.

Robinson encouraged state AGs and their offices to develop relationships with their state’s adult protective services agencies if those connections don’t already exist. “You’d be surprised how a little bit can go a long way” in terms of outreach, Robinson said.

PREVIOUSLY on Route Fifty:

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

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