How to Report Crime Against the ElderlyAbuse and Neglect
When you become a primary caregiver for an elderly loved one, you get a crash course in keeping your loved one healthy and safe. Most of what you learn includes little about elderly individuals’ increasing vulnerability to crime. Rather, you typically find how-to information about locating the best type of care and research facility ratings and government agency assessments. If your loved one prefers to age at home, you will likely interview in-home care providers and request background checks.
As the individual with primary responsibility for an elderly person, you must also learn to recognize when caregivers are engaging in abuse or exploitation. You must understand how thieves and scammers target the elderly as a source of easily available cash, and you and your elderly loved one must recognize that these behaviors are crimes. When they occur, you should report them immediately to both a nursing home lawyer and the authorities.
Legal Guidance For Elderly Abuse and Exploitation Victims
Before you report an abuse or exploitation crime, you need an attorney to protect your legal interests. Whether you complain to a nursing home, a home healthcare provider, or even a police department, you need to know that the appropriate authorities will take action. Elder law attorneys provide the compassionate legal assistance that individuals in your situation need. These professionals understand relevant negligence issues as well as applicable state and federal laws.
An attorney will provide services that help protect your rights and help you navigate the legal system, including:
- Assist you in taking steps to protect an elderly victim from further harm;
- Work to recover financial damages on your loved one’s behalf;
- Advise you and your loved one of legal rights under state and federal elderly crime laws;
- Provide guidance and assistance in reporting crimes to the appropriate authorities; and
- Provide information to criminal prosecutors.
Crimes Against the Elderly
Criminals and opportunists who commit offenses against elderly individuals see them as easy targets, which is often true. As people age, they sometimes become physically, mentally, and emotionally frail. Elderly individuals become frequent victims because they are easy to victimize and because they often can’t or won’t report the abuse.
Individuals who struggle with Alzheimer’s or dementia don’t always recognize what’s happening. Even if individuals with cognitive or memory issues realize that they are victims, they often forget the abuse.
Elder Abuse Is a Crime
A crime constitutes elder abuse when the victim is age 60 or older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that it’s an act by caregivers or others in a close relationship. Relationships usually create “an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.”
Sadly, this broad description often includes relatives, professional in-home agencies, and residential facilities that care for your loved one. The harm described by the CDC usually varies in duration and intensity. As agencies and police departments struggle to set consistent standards, some use the term exploitation instead of abuse.
The CDC has established the following guidelines to help agencies and care providers recognize and categorize forms of abuse:
- Physical abuse: Physical abuse occurs when a victim endures pain and physical harm due to intentional hits, kicks, punches, slaps, and other physical attacks. This type of abuse usually occurs in nursing home environments and in-home care situations with paid professionals and unpaid caregivers.
- Sexual abuse: A caregiver causes harm due to unwanted sexual contact or sexual harassment.
- Emotional or psychological abuse: A caregiver uses threats to inflict mental anguish, fear, humiliation, and other harm.
- Neglect: A caregiver intentionally or negligently withholds food, water, clothing, healthcare, hygiene, and other essential needs. This becomes a severe problem when victims cannot care for themselves.
- Financial abuse: Unauthorized use of an elderly person’s money, property, benefits, or assets.
Where Elder Abuse Occurs
When your loved one needs daily assistance, you select a residential setting based on those needs. You have care options but little control over what happens when you’re not around. Both professional and non-professional caregivers commit abusive acts.
Opportunities for abusive behaviors often occur based on the type of residential setting and the amount of care provided.
- Nursing homes: A skilled nursing facility cares for full-time residents. These facilities accommodate seniors who need healthcare, socialization, meals, personal care, and other services. As a nursing home resident, seniors often depend on someone else to provide all of their food, care, and hygiene needs. They often interact with nurses’ aides, attendants, LPNs, RNs, housekeeping, recreational, and food service staff.
- Assisted living: Individual senior apartment or condo residences provide varying levels of service. Some AL facilities offer transportation, group social activities, dining, and assistance with personal upkeep and medical care. Residents live somewhat independently. Depending on the facility and the arrangements, they may interact with healthcare professionals, transportation providers, personal care assistants, and others as needed.
- Independent living: An independent senior living community often includes a mix of living situations. Seniors in independent communities usually care for themselves, but they also have access to care professionals, senior activities, recreation, transportation, and other services when needed.
- Aging in place: When seniors choose to remain in their home, they or their primary caregivers often contract with an independent company to provide live-in care, personal care, and homemaking services. Many of these companies provide non-medical services. Clients usually arrange medical visits through their healthcare providers. Depending on the services requested, seniors sometimes spend time alone with independent caregivers and service providers. Sometimes, this arrangement presents opportunities for abuse.
- Respite care: When family members provide primary care, they sometimes turn to respite care when they need a break. Respite caregivers provide contracted services during scheduled visits. Caregivers work rotating schedules, so they interact with the same elderly clients only occasionally. This provides few opportunities for abuse.
Why Abuse Occurs
Care institutions and caregiver businesses usually implement conscientious hiring practices. They conduct background and criminal checks and verify qualifications. They interview each job candidate and assess the candidates’ potential for inappropriate behavior.
Unfortunately, employee hiring and management processes don’t always live up to their own standards. Staff shortages, heavy workloads, and high turnover often cause negligent management and improper employee hiring and retention decisions.
Factors that may lead to abuse include:
- Negligent management or administration;
- Negligent employee hiring;
- Inadequate training and monitoring;
- Negligent patient monitoring protocols;
- Inadequate patient to staff ratios;
- Improper and inadequate safety measures; and
- Improper or inadequate patient nutrition/hydration controls.
Elder Abuse Injuries
Types of abuse vary, and so do the consequences. When you know what to look for, you sometimes find evidence of physical assaults. Verbal abuse is more insidious because the injuries are often emotional and psychological. Neglect and inappropriate care often manifest in ways similar to a progressive illness. These injuries are often common consequences of abuse and exploitation.
A person undergoing physical abuse shows a range of injuries and responses. Hitting and other physical abuse causes bruises, broken bones, and other injuries. A Justice Department study on elderly abuse determined that patient-to-patient abuse was common. When this occurs in a residential setting, it’s evidence of improper patient monitoring and supervision.
Nursing homes have developed a bad reputation for using antipsychotics and other medications to restrain Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. These drugs sometimes cause personality changes, increased mortality, and other negative side effects. Facilities sometimes overmedicate as a strategy to control patients in facilities that lack adequate staff.
Seniors often become malnourished, even when food is plentiful. Physical, emotional, cognitive, medical, and food quality issues often change a senior’s eating patterns and desire for food. In a nursing home setting, the staff must implement proper feeding protocols and monitoring. An in-home, personal care assistant should ensure that their client consumes adequate food as well. A Mayo Clinic article on senior malnutrition explains how improper nutrition weakens the immune system, muscles, and bones. It also decreases healing abilities and contributes to fatalities.
As seniors’ thirst response diminishes as they age, caregivers must do what’s necessary to prevent dehydration. They must ensure that the person in their care consumes enough liquids to stay healthy. Inadequate hydration sometimes causes kidney issues, electrolyte imbalances, muscle weakness, dizziness, increased falls, and cognitive impairment. When a senior sustains injuries or has other medical problems, dehydration contributes to increased morbidity.
Emotional and Psychological Trauma
When care workers yell, scream, threaten, or disrespect the elderly, it causes emotional, psychological, and physical harm. They experience depression, anxiety, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart issues, substance abuse, and other reactions. One psychiatric study confirmed that elderly patients who fall sometimes suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sexual Abuse injuries
In addition to emotional and psychological trauma, sexual abuse victims sometimes experience bruises, scrapes, genital wounds, lacerations, inflammation, fractures, and other visible injuries.
Bed or wheelchair-bound seniors often develop bedsores due to negligent care. Medical professionals also refer to these types of wounds as pressure sores, decubitus ulcers, and pressure ulcers. The problem usually begins with skin that covers elbows, ankles, and other areas where bones protrude. The body’s weight causes pressure or friction that cuts off the skin’s blood supply. Eventually, a bedsore develops. If not treated, bedsores often become large, open wounds, which sometimes affect muscles and bones. Medical professionals agree that periodic repositioning minimizes the chances of bedsore development.
Scams and Financial Exploitation Crimes Against the Elderly
When the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) researched Elder Financial Exploitation, it found a disturbing trend. From 2013 to 2017, financial and money services businesses reported over 180,000 transactions on Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs). SARs documented 1.7 billion dollars taken by senior adult financial exploitation. The responsible criminals included scammers, family members, caregivers, fiduciaries, and others with access to a senior’s assets, property, and bank accounts.
The CFPB recorded the following statistics:
- An older adults’ actual financial losses per event averaged $34,200.
- Adults age 70 to 79 lost an average of $45,300.
- Seven percent of the SAR losses averaged more than $100,000 each.
- Victims over age 80 averaged the highest losses.
- Over half of the suspicious transactions involved a money transfer.
- Suspicious activities took place over an average 4-month period.
- Losses were greater when the elderly victim knew the suspect.
The CFPB believes that SAR reports represent only a fraction of actual senior financial exploitation incidents. Prior studies confirmed that crimes against seniors are underestimated and underreported.
Law Enforcement and Senior Exploitation Crimes
Despite senior exploitation laws in many jurisdictions across the country, police departments have rarely pursued the responsible criminals. Former criminal prosecutor Paul Greenwood and other senior advocates have traveled the country to educate law enforcement authorities about the disconnect. Mr. Greenwood trains officers, speaks at fraud conferences, and has testified before Congress. His experiences showed him that authorities didn’t usually see exploitation crimes as actual crimes.
Police departments often considered them civil matters for several reasons, including:
- Seniors rarely report exploitation as a crime.
- These crimes often involve family members or other known people.
- Because of elderly individual’s age, police officers consider the victims unreliable witnesses.
Scammers also target seniors as a ready source of cash. Scammers often recycle old fraud schemes and create new ones. These financial crimes often involve money transfers and gift cards.
- The boyfriend scam: A person establishes a relationship online. When the couple gets to know each other better, the scammer asks for a loan or an outright cash gift. By then, the victim (often a woman) feels emotionally connected and complies with the request.
- Gift card scams: A “grandchild” or another seemingly close relative needs money immediately to avoid being arrested, evicted, etc. The scammer requests the elderly individual to purchase department store gift cards and call with the PINs. The scammer immediately buys goods with the gift cards and returns the goods for cash.
- IRS scams: The IRS calls you asking for immediate payment and threatens arrest if you don’t comply.
- Social security scams: Scammers pretend they’re from the Social Security Administration and try to get your social security number and personal data.
- Money mule scams: Criminals recruit seniors to help them launder illegally obtained cash. They deposit the money into a senior’s account and pay them a fee to transfer it to another location.
Laws to Protect the Elderly
As law enforcement authorities fully recognize senior exploitation as a crime, prosecution and damage recovery becomes easier. The federal government and individual states have laws that identify specific senior exploitation crimes. As of 2015, senior exploitation is a federal offense. Depending on the assets taken, a scammer is subject to a felony or misdemeanor conviction. The Justice Department also established the Elder Justice Initiative to train police officers and assist victims of abuse and exploitation.
South Carolina Adult Protection and Consumer Protection laws implement additional senior protections.
- The state’s Adult protection codes establish reporting, investigative, prosecution, and court procedures for abuse, neglect, and exploitation allegations.
- Since 2018, South Carolina’s Consumer Protection Code has provided additional elderly protections. It prohibits anyone from obtaining money “by intimidation, undue influence, or false, misleading, or deceptive acts or practices.” The law further prohibits stealing “personal identifying information” to commit identity fraud or theft against a vulnerable adult.
Recognizing Senior Abuse, Exploitation, and Scams
Research shows that when elderly individuals understand the potential for exploitation and scams, they’re less likely to allow criminals to fool them. When a person has cognitive or dementia issues, families and caretakers must monitor their loved ones to protect them from criminal acts.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website provides updates on current scams. AARP’s Fraudwatch Network provides online information, fraud updates, and live and online senior fraud awareness seminars. State and federal law provide criminal recourse for violation of codes that protect seniors, but may not help you or your loved one recover compensation for the harm you suffered.
When you consult an attorney, you learn more about your legal options. Attorneys help guide you through the process of reporting the crime and recovering damages for your loved one’s injuries.
Nathan Hughey, an attorney and fourth-generation South Carolinian, founded Hughey Law Firm in 2007. Before that, he spent five years defending nursing homes and insurance companies. Leveraging his experience, he now advocates for those injured or wronged by such entities, securing over $220 million in verdicts and settlements.