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Elder Abuse Overview

One commits elder abuse by subjecting a senior citizen to physical,emotional or sexual mistreatment; by neglecting or abandoning a senior; or by exploiting a senior for financial or material gain. Even self-neglect, whereby a senior citizen fails to perform essential self-care tasks, may be characterized as elder abuse for purposes of referring a case to adult protective services (APS). FindLaw's "Types of Elder Abuse" provides a more in-depth look at the various forms of abuse.

While federal law does not specifically address elder abuse (although federal legislation funds the National Center on Elder Abuse, or NCEA), all 50 states and the District of Columbia provide APS programs for victims. While senior citizens usually are defined as those 60 (or 65) and older, most laws addressing elder abuse also apply to adults of any age and are similar to child abuse laws.

Most experts agree that elder abuse usually happens in the victim's own home, or the home/facility of his or her caregiver, and the perpetrator frequently is a family member. Victims often are too confused about abusive acts; are kept isolated; are unwilling to report a family member; or, if it is financial abuse, are unaware of it.

An estimated one out of every 10 senior citizens in the United States experiences some type of abuse, but fewer than 20 percent of those cases ever get reported, according to the NCEA. Elder financial abuse in particular was estimated to have cost older Americans $2.9 billion in 2009, a 12 percent increase from the 2008 estimate, according to a study by the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse.

Elder Abuse and Criminal Law

Individuals accused of committing elder abuse may be prosecuted under a given jurisdiction's general criminal code (e.g., assault, battery, fraud,theft, rape), but some states have adopted statutes that provide explicit criminal penalties for elder abuse in its various forms. Also, some state legislatures have enacted stricter penalties for certain crimes where senior citizens are the victims.

Some states' criminal justice systems began making changes to better respond to instances of elder abuse in the 21st century, as the population of aging Baby Boomers has increased.

In California, for example, the State Attorney General's Office assigns a single prosecutor to vertically prosecute cases where individuals 65 and over have been physically or financially abused. The goal is help provide more continuity, and ultimately success, in these types of cases. California also has implemented specialized forensic review teams to better identify and respond to suspected cases of elder abuse.

Illinois passed the Illinois Elder Abuse and Neglect Act in 1988, which includes provisions to help law enforcement and social workers better respond to elder abuse reports. This includes a mandate that elder care and other professionals in contact with seniors 60 and older who are unable to care for themselves must report any signs of abuse.

At the federal level, so-called "fiduciary abuse specialist teams (FASTs)"made up of FBI agents, accountants, insurance claims detectives and other professionals are more aggressively pursuing cases of financial elder abuse.

Elder Abuse and Civil Liability

Civil liability resulting from elder abuse is handled at the state level,with some states allowing recovery of punitive damages, court costs and attorney's fees in addition to compensatory damages. Nursing homes and other caretakers may be subject to lawsuits for failing to provide adequate care, over-prescribing drugs, financial fraud, inflicting physical harm and other forms of abuse or exploitation.

Talk to an attorney for specific information about filing an elder abuse lawsuit in your state.

Adult Protective Services

Adult protective services (APS), similar to child protective services,provide for the safety, health and overall well-being of adults with special needs. APS, facilitated by state governments, serve all adults who are vulnerable to mistreatment, neglect or who are unable to care for or protect themselves. This includes disabled adults of all ages as well as elderly individuals.

APS interventions include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Receiving and investigating reports of alleged instances of elder abuse
  • Evaluating victim's risks
  • Assessing victim's ability to fully understand his or her risks and to give informed consent
  • Drafting a case plan for an abused adult
  • Arranging for needed care, such as emergency shelter, medical attention, legal consultation and related services
  • Monitoring of services rendered
  • General evaluation of each case

APS caseworkers are the first to respond to reports of abuse, neglect, exploitation and related offenses with respect to the elderly and other vulnerable adults, including reports of self-neglect.

Most state laws that specifically address elder abuse establish reporting requirements (including penalties for mandated first responders who fail to report abuse); outline procedures for investigating reports; and provide for emergency protection, guardianship, health care and other vital services. These laws heavily involve the operations of APS.

In Texas, for example, Chapter 48 of the state's Human Resources Code,entitled "Investigations and Protective Services for Elderly and Disabled Persons," describes its purpose as follows:

The purpose of this chapter is to provide for the authority to investigate the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an elderly or disabled person and to provide protective services to that person.

See FindLaw's "Reporting Elder Abuse" for detailed information about alerting authorities. The NCEA provides a state-by-state directory of elder abuse resources, such as hotlines, prevention resources,applicable elder abuse laws and links to state APS websites.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified elder abuse attorney to help you and loved ones recognize and fight elder abuse.

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