Elder abuse won’t be overlooked

by T.W. Budig

ECM Capitol Reporter

Public awareness of the elder abuse “epidemic” is key to stopping it, Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative officials insist.

“It’s so important we get on top of it early,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said last month at a press conference in St. Paul.

No one really knows how many elders face abuse of trust, many times by family members, during the Golden Years.

Associate Director Iris Freeman, Center for Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell College of Law, said, just over the past few years, some 30,000 reports of elder abuse have been received by county social service agencies in Minnesota. These numbers do include police reports and reports to other agencies.

“Unfortunately, one of our gaps is information,” Freeman said.

The most common forms of elder abuse are physical, emotional and sexual abuse; neglect and financial exploitation.

Scott Campbell, a retired Duluth police officer, spoke of a brother wrongfully tapping into their elderly mother’s savings of $115,000, leaving less than $700.

“It’s one done by a family member,” he said of the abuse.

About two-thirds of elder financial exploitation prosecuted in his county, Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said, involved family members.

Things are being done. House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee Chairwoman Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, also a county prosecutor, said “very significant” changes to state law have been made to make prosecution of elder abuse easier. And tougher. For instance, in cases of financial exploitation, exploiters can be charged for every six months of the exploitation, plus face an aggregate sentence. Additionally, restitution can be sought, even if the elderly victim has passed away, she said.

To heighten public awareness, the Elders Initiative co-produced with Twin Cities Public Television a 26-minute documentary on elder abuse that was aired beginning June 16.

Working with Hilstrom, law students at William Mitchell constructed a mobile device app, S.A.F.E. MN, that includes a list of signs of abuse, reporting agencies, others tools for law enforcement. The public, too, can download the app for free.

Elders Initiative, which grew out of a partnership between the Anoka County Attorney’s Office and Vulnerable Adult Justice Project, also produced a Prosecutors Trial Notebook. The notebook includes sample complaints, briefs, sentencing guidelines and other information useful for prosecutors when taking alleged elder abusers to court.

“This crime is an abuse of trust,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said.

Questions to ask an elder when abuse is suspected

When trying to determine if elder abuse is occurring, experts suggest starting by asking three basic questions:

–Is someone taking or using your money without your permission?

–Is anybody hurting you?

–Are you afraid of anyone?

Be mindful, experts warn, not to ask these questions in the presence of a possible abuser.