Justice News

Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the White House World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Event
Washington, DC
United States
Thursday, June 14, 2012

Good afternoon. Kathy, thank you for that introduction and for the leadership that you and the Department of Health and Human Services are providing to meet the needs of our nation’s aging populations. I also want to thank our moderator for this afternoon’s panel and my DOJ colleague, Andy Mao, for his help in organizing today’s events and for his unwavering commitment to combating elder abuse and financial exploitation.

It’s been 35 years since Hubert Humphrey reminded us that the measure of a society is reflected by the way it treats those who are in the dawn of life; those who age in the twilight of life; and those who persevere in the shadows of life. And often – all too often – those in life’s twilight are also suffering in life’s shadows.

Ours is a society that is rapidly aging. Within roughly the next decade and a half, over 72 million Americans will be over the age of 65 -- nearly 20% of the entire population, according to the Administration on Aging. And for a culture that celebrates and caters to youth, this fact presents us with particular challenges and important questions, not the least of which is how will we ensure those in life’s twilight receive the dignity, respect and quality care they deserve.

Part of the answer lies in our honestly recognizing and openly discussing the very real but underreported problem of elder abuse. As Acting Associate Attorney General, I oversee much of the Justice Department’s efforts to protect seniors from financial exploitation, age discrimination and health care fraud. And while I believe there have been significant improvements in law enforcement’s ability to recognize and respond to elder abuse over the years, the tragedy is still far too prevalent, with victims often too ashamed to come forward, especially when the perpetrator is a family member.

Even today – nearly 30 years after the United Nations World Assembly recognized elder abuse as a public health and human rights issue – we still find deeply disturbing cases of neglect.

Like the case we pursued in Rome, Georgia against a man named George Houser. The owner of three nursing homes, Houser billed Medicare and Medicaid for about $32 million in services that failed to meet basic standards of care. Houser spent portions of the money on furniture, vacations, fancy cars and various real estate investments. But even more significant than his financial fraud on the taxpayers was his deplorable neglect of his nursing home residents.

Houser’s failure to maintain adequate staffing meant residents were unable to receive the assistance they needed to dress, feed or even clean themselves. Patients went hungry. Bed-ridden residents went unmoved. Bed linens soiled with human waste went unchanged.

One family member found her aunt suffering from dehydration and malnutrition in one of Houser’s homes; a treating physician later discovered – and removed – a cockroach that had burrowed deep into the elderly woman’s ear.

A nurse from another nursing home who had been called in to assist when most of Houser’s employees had left described her shock when she found one bed-ridden resident covered from her neck to her feet with small black bugs, and the woman’s eyes matted shut from lack of care and cleaning.

Now, traditionally, those of us in law enforcement would treat cases like Houser’s as a typical law enforcement problem: a health care fraud that requires a recovery for the taxpayer or a criminal neglect that demands individual accountability.

And that’s an appropriate response. Indeed, last February, Houser was convicted on 11 counts of conspiring to commit health care and tax fraud. He now faces a maximum sentence of over 50 years in prison. So the traditional law enforcement response is definitely appropriate.

But what we at the Justice Department recognize and what all of us here appreciate is that the traditional law enforcement response, while appropriate and necessary, is not sufficient. We must do more; we must engage in a multidisciplinary approach that helps us to identify elder abuse earlier; helps us to stop it more quickly; helps us to prevent it from occurring in the first place.

And in this regard, I think we are making some important strides.

First, we’re collecting data to raise awareness and bolster prevention efforts. Through our Office of Justice Programs, the Justice Department has funded a wide range of cutting edge-research on the signs and characteristics of elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.

In fact, earlier this week, the Department released a report on the violent physical and sexual abuse of the elderly – a hidden epidemic, the majority of which takes during the isolated evening and nighttime nursing home hours, often at the hands of someone the victim knows.

Second, we’re supporting the training of hundreds of police officers and judges on elder mistreatment, as well as hundreds of local prosecutors on how to develop effectively and prosecute successfully elder abuse cases. Because timely, certain and consistent enforcement action against elder abuse is an essential ingredient to our overall success.

But third, and equally important, through the Department’s Elder Justice Initiative, Office for Victims of Crime and Access to Justice Initiative, we are funding and facilitating the training of a wide range of professionals to work with law enforcement in connection with identifying and responding to victimsof elder abuse.

Professionals like victim service providers, health care practitioners, adult protective services workers and civil legal aid providers – it’s an important step toward helping to ensure that when victims seek help, they will be met with dignity, assistance and respect.

So as we continue to bring our law enforcement tools to bear to investigate, prosecute and punish elder abuse perpetrators, we at the Department also know that the most effective elder abuse case is the one we prevent.

And to do that, we must continue to work together and build networks together; we must continue to collaborate and combine our resources and areas of expertise.

We know this work is not easy. But we also know that so many are depending on us – especially those who suffer in silence and are unable to speak for themselves – they are depending on us to do this work and to do it well, and I know we will not let them down.

Thank you very much.

Updated September 17, 2014