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March 01, 2011

Senate Hearing Puts Spotlight on Elder Abuse

Witnesses appearing March 2 before the Senate Special Committee on Aging drew attention to an issue they said often receives far less interest than it deserves: the abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of the nation’s senior citizens.

In his opening statement, committee Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) emphasized that the nation’s leaders must regard the issue of elder abuse as a priority. To make his point, Kohl cited the prevalence of the problem in his own state of Wisconsin, where more than 5,000 cases of suspected abuse, neglect or financial exploitation of senior citizens were reported in 2009 – a 9 percent increase over the year before.

Kohl said that in order to address this growing problem, action must be taken to “ensure that federal, state and local agencies work cohesively to combat elder abuse.” On the same day of the hearing, he introduced S. 462, the “Elder Abuse Victims Act,” and S. 464, the “End Abuse in Later Life Act.” The bills would contribute to the resources available to victims of elder abuse and build on provisions in the Elder Justice Act (EJA), the first comprehensive legislation enacted on elder abuse that is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148) signed by President Obama one year ago. Funds to support EJA’s important provisions have yet to be appropriated, however, and the law lacks justice-related provisions the ABA says are “critically needed to improve the quality of justice for elder abuse victims.”

S. 462 and S. 464, which are supported by the ABA, would authorize funding for victim advocate groups and entities that provide training and other types of support to prosecutors, courts, local law enforcement, and others handling elder justice-related cases. 

Kay E. Brown, director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), highlighted a GAO report issued the day of the hearings that concluded that federal leadership is lacking in the elder justice area.

The report, Elder Abuse: Stronger Federal Leadership Could Enhance National Response to Elder Abuse, found that state Adult Protective Services program resources are not keeping pace with growing caseloads that are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to resolve. The report recommended that the secretary of health and Human Services and the attorney general develop and implement a nationwide APS data system and that Congress should consider requiring HHS to conduct a periodical study to estimate the extent of elder abuse.

Among the witnesses testifying before the committee was performer and WWII veteran Mickey Rooney, who gave an emotional account of having his money and decisionmaking abilities stripped from him by family members, leading to a situation where he was “left powerless” and unable to seek appropriate legal help due to a lack of control over his finances.

He urged Congress to enhance the information and resources available to elder abuse victims so that they can “speak up and begin to take the necessary steps to end the cycle of elder abuse.”

In a letter to Kohl and committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ABA recommended implementation of specific actions to strengthen the resources available to those providing legal services to victims of elder abuse.

ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman urged Congress to implement multiple measures, including “creating a nationwide structure for raising public awareness of elder abuse; developing and implementing specialized training about elder abuse for all components of the justice system; and creating task forces or coalitions in each state to examine and develop systemic approaches to elder abuse interventions.”

The letter stated that with federal legislation and an increase in funding, the ABA’s recommendations can be implemented, and the much- needed improvement in the quality of justice for elder abuse victims will be realized.

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