A caregiver in Phoenix, Arizona, is accused of using a telephone cord to bind her eighty-nine year old victim. According to police reports, the victim was tied to a chair with a phone cord and slapped on her head and face by her caregiver for nearly four hours. The victim was found several hours after the alleged abuse.
Hundreds of thousands of seniors are abused, neglected and exploited every year. The cases that are reported are only a fraction of what’s happening as elder abuse is an often unreported crime. This happens for a myriad of reasons, including the mental state of the victim (people simply do not believe the victim when he or she tells others of the abuse) or availability of help (the abuser may be the only person with whom the victim communicates). Most of the time, the perpetrators are people the senior trusts most: caregivers, friends, or even relatives.
What is Elder Abuse?
In general, elder abuse is a term that refers to any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. Based on the prevalence of elder abuse, all fifty states have passed some form of elder abuse prevention laws. While each state law is different, abuse has seven categories:
- physical abuse, inflicting pain on a senior;
- sexual abuse, non-consensual sexual contact;
- neglect, failure to provide an elder with food, shelter, health care, or protection;
- exploitation, illegal taking or concealment of funds, property, or assets;
- emotional abuse, inflicting mental pain or anguish; abandonment, desertion of an elder;
- self-neglect, failure of person to form self-care tasks that threatens the senior’s health or safety.
What are the Legal Repercussions of Elder Abuse?
All states and the District of Columbia have specific laws that criminalize the abuse, neglect and exploitation of elders. Nevertheless, there is considerable variability in the state statutes. Some states define elder abuse as particular conduct against a person over a specific age, while other states focus on the victim’s physical or cognitive vulnerability without regard to age.
At least two states, Massachusetts and North Carolina, have laws which subject anyone over the age of 18 who has sufficient means, but neglects or refuses to support a parent who is unable to support him or herself due to age or disability, to a fine or imprisonment.
If elder abuse is suspected, the first necessary step is reporting the abuse. The vast majority of states require certain classes of professionals (medical professionals, health care providers, mental health counselors, etc.) to report suspected abuse and neglect. Some states have 24 hour hotlines to make reporting easier.
Next, both social service and law enforcement agencies are instructed to investigate reports, intervene, or remove the senior victim from the abusive environment. Authorities are granted special powers to revoke or deny operating permits if they find abuse in nursing home and care facilities. It is also possible that provisions protecting employees who report such abuse are protected from retaliation by their employers.
A perpetrator of elder abuse can be prosecuted for:
depending on the situation. Some states increase penalties when the victim is elderly. For instance, an offender in Nevada who commits a crime against a person who is over sixty is subject to a prison term twice as long as that normally allowed for the same offense.
Because of the age of the senior, civil and criminal cases involving an older victim is given priority in states such as California, Colorado, Nevada and New York. Many states also make other accommodations, such as allowing depositions to be videotaped in case the elderly victim or witness cannot attend trial.
Most elder abuse offenses are felony level offenses. Elder abuse charges based on omissions or negligent conduct typically fall into the lower end of felony charges with a shorter prison sentence ranging from one to three years. Elder abuse charges based on intentional or knowing conduct receive longer prison sentences, ranging from two to twenty years.
Preventing Elder Abuse
If you suspect someone you love is being abused, be vigilant. If your loved one resides in a nursing home, make unexpected visits and make note of any ailments you notice. Contact an attorney if you discover signs of elder abuse.
Authored by Erin Chan-Adams, Legal Match Legal Writer and Attorney at Law