A great majority of people give their aging parents and grandparents the love and care they need and deserve. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, millions of our senior citizens suffer from abuse or neglect each year.
Senior citizens are not unprotected. The law is there to keep our seniors safe and healthy and to punish abusive or neglectful caregivers.
Who are “Elders?”
While all 50 states have laws addressing the problem of elder abuse and neglect, the laws aren’t uniform. Under the Federal Older Americans Act (OAA), anyone at least 60 years old is an elder or senior citizen. Many states use the same age as the federal law, but some states use the age of 65.
What is “Abuse?”
Each state law specifically defines elder abuse. Typically, state law definitions include physical abuse, neglect or a deprivation of care that causes an elder physical harm, pain or mental suffering. Neglect may be:
- Passive, such as where a caregiver’s illness, disability, stress, ignorance, lack of maturity or lack of financial resources causes the caregiver’s neglect;
- Active, such as when a caregiver intentionally harms the elder or withholds care from an elder, or when there is hostility and tension between the elder and the caregiver;
- Also, many states include any form of non-consensual sexual touching as abuse. Some states even include self-neglect, such as when elders can’t or refuse to take proper care of themselves. State agencies usually step-in and provide care in these situations.
Abuse May Be a Criminal or Civil Offense
There’s a growing trend to treat elder abuse as a criminal offense with enhanced penalties and sentences. Elder abuse statutes provide a range of criminal punishments, such as fines, jail or both. Sentences for crimes like assault and battery, sexual abuse, theft and fraud are usually tougher when elders are the victims.
Some states let elder-victims or their families to sue abusive or neglectful caregivers and recover compensatory and punitive damages, court costs and attorney’s fees. This is on top of any criminal charges the caregivers may face.
Penalties for Care Facilities
Usually, there’s a separate penalty scheme for facilities and workers who abuse the elderly in institutional settings. In some states, nursing homes and other institutional caregivers and their works are subject to penalties including loss of license, censure and fines. Again, abusive or neglectful staff members and workers may face criminal charges, too.
Most states require elder abuse to be reported to an agency. Several states require anyone who witnesses it to file a report. Most states, however, require reporting by health and human services professionals, long-term care facilities employees and law enforcement personnel.
In a handful of states, financial professionals, such as bankers, and clergy members are required to report abuse as well.
As a general rule, anyone with the responsibility of reporting elder abuse must make a report if they have a “reasonable belief” that an elderly person has been the victim of abuse.
Penalties for Not Reporting
Most states make the failure to report elder abuse a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, jail time or both. In a few states, anyone who is required to report and fails to do so may be sued by the elder or the elder’s family members.
In practically all states, the name of the person who makes a report or files a complaint is kept confidential.
State agencies, such as local adult protective services agencies, are usually in charge of investigating complaints of elder abuse. Local police departments may also start an investigation after receiving a compliant and then turn the matter over to the agency.
Also, each state has an ombudsman to investigate complaints of elder abuse in institutional settings, but ombudsmen may investigate some cases of domestic abuse involving elders – abuse that takes place in a private home.
We have these laws and civil and criminal penalties because elder abuse cannot and should not be tolerated. Like our children, many of our senior citizens are incapable of defending themselves against abuse and neglect. It’s up to us to properly care for and protect them.
If you suspect someone you know or love is the victim of elder abuse, contact the proper authorities. If you believe someone in California is or was a victim of elder abuse and you want to take civil action against that person or facility, contact our offices at 760-702-4046 for more information.