The following post appears courtesy of Mary Lou Leary, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs
Today, June 15, we mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, a moment for Americans and people around the world to learn about the abuse, neglect, and exploitation of some of our elders —and to commit ourselves to ending these crimes.
In recent years, our society has become painfully aware that vulnerable older adults face financial, physical, and psychological abuse. Most commonly they suffer at the hands of family members or caregivers on whom they are dependent, and are afraid to report the abuse. Or their fear or shame may cause them to believe that the abuse is a private, family matter. Low household income, unemployment, poor health, prior traumatic events, and low levels of social support all can increase the risk of mistreatment for older people. But we know from the suffering endured by the philanthropist Brooke Astor and the actor Mickey Rooney that money and fame offer no immunity against either physical or financial abuse.
This problem is compounded by the fact that the medical and criminal justice communities have no comprehensive forensic guidelines for identifying elder abuse. Financial exploitation of older adults has not been thoroughly studied because of problems with detection, conflicting definitions of the crime, and underreporting. Additionally, there is a lack of services that can help victims of elder abuse which further adds to the issue.
But a report issued this week by the Office of Justice Program’s Bureau of Justice Statistics gives some definitive statistical support for the pervasiveness of these crimes, and gives us a platform for further action. The report, Violent Crime against the Elderly Reported by Law Enforcement in Michigan, 2005-2009, found that half of violent victimizations of persons age 65 or older involved serious crimes such as murder, rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault.
Why Michigan? Currently, we have no national data system to capture information on elder abuse known to law enforcement. The FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, however, collects such data from all law enforcement agencies in sixteen states, as well as from many local jurisdictions. So we can use this study of incidents of violent elder abuse in one state to improve our understanding of the extent of the problem nationwide.
The Michigan study found that a family member, most often a child or grandchild, was the perpetrator in half of violent crimes against the elderly. Nearly two-thirds of this abuse happened inside a residence, either a private home or group quarters such as a long-term care facility. Four out of 10 elderly victims of violence were physically injured during the incident, 6.5 percent of them seriously, and one percent of victims died as a result of the attack.
The Office of Justice Program (OJP) is working on many fronts to research the causes and effects of elder abuse, and to find evidence-based solutions to the problem. For example, elder abuse is one of the many kinds of victimizations encompassed by the Office for Victims of Crime’s “Vision 21.” Vision 21 is a major initiative designed to expand the capacity of victim assistance programs to meet both emerging and long-standing needs. Vision 21 looks beyond the raw numbers in the National Crime Victimization Survey to get a real picture of the victims, the services they receive—and to find out why some people ask for help and others do not. The OJP already knows, for example, that for every one case of elder abuse or neglect reported to authorities, about five more go unreported.
Meanwhile, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has been working for several years to identify promising practices and evaluate their effectiveness. During next week’s NIJ 2012 conference, Turning to Science: Enhancing Justice, Improving Safety, Reducing Costs, two panels on elder abuse will examine findings from NIJ-funded studies. One panel centers on abuse in residential care facilities. It looks at resident-to-resident mistreatment in six nursing homes in New York, and resident abuse from family and staff in a nationally representative sample of 5,000 nurses’ aides from 1,350 assisted-living facilities. The second panel highlights newly-developed screening tools for elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.
Furthermore, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) has recognized that the majority of people over the age of 85 are women. In order to address the needs of older victims, Congress created the Enhanced Training and Services to End Violence Against and Abuse of Women Later in Life Program – as part of the Violence Against Women Act. This year, the OVW will fund projects that support a comprehensive approach to addressing elder abuse that includes specialized training for criminal justice professionals, staff in government agencies, and victim service providers; training on recognizing and responding to violence for professionals working with older victims; enhancing services for older victims; and supporting a coordinated community response to elder abuse.
While we are making progress in our efforts to shed light on this often-hidden problem, it is terribly clear that we have much more to do. On this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, I urge you to join the Justice Department in a commitment to ending elder abuse and to creating communities that safeguard and protect all of our vulnerable citizens.