Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at the Elder Justice Coordinating Council Meeting
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Thank you for that warm introduction, Deputy Secretary Palm. I am pleased to represent the Department of Justice at this first meeting under the Biden Administration of the Elder Justice Coordinating Council.
The Justice Department is proud to count the Department of Health and Human Services as our valued partner in our efforts to improve the lives of older Americans and to protect them from abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. I also want to thank all of today’s participants for your dedication to this work. This Council truly represents our commitment to taking a whole-of-government approach to promoting elder justice.
Every year, millions of older Americans are abused, neglected and exploited. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a study supported by the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice found that at least one in 10 older Americans is a victim of some form of elder abuse each year.
This is unacceptable.
The COVID-19 pandemic took a devastating toll on the health and lives of older adults and exposed that too many of them – especially those living on fixed incomes – are socially isolated and economically vulnerable.
The pandemic also exacerbated the risk of abuse and financial exploitation of older Americans. While unemployment, evictions, loss of benefits, utility shutoffs and medical issues greatly increased the need for assistance, many seniors became more susceptible to fraud and abuse, as the pandemic left them isolated from the social networks that might otherwise have sought to protect them.
The department has marshalled a wide array of tools – enforcement actions, research, public education, training and victim services – to protect our nation’s seniors. But protecting seniors from abuse and financial exploitation is only the baseline of what we are tasked to do. The department also seeks to proactively advance equity for seniors by ensuring that they have equal access to justice and are integrated into our communities to the greatest extent possible.
Let me first turn to some of the ways that the department has sought to combat elder abuse and fraud.
As we outlined in our recent annual report to Congress, the Justice Department is aggressively enforcing the law by investigating and, where appropriate, prosecuting a wide range of abuses against older Americans – from nursing homes that provide grossly substandard care, to transnational fraud schemes, and to guardians and others who abuse their positions of trust.
To enhance our federal law enforcement efforts, the department has formed strong collaborative relationships with state and local law enforcement and has developed a wide array of resources, tools and in-person and online trainings to expand their capacity to investigate elder abuse and financial exploitation. And the department actively seeks to mitigate the economic hardships caused by such crimes by protecting victims’ assets and seeking to return forfeited funds to victims of financial scams targeting older adults.
We have also worked cooperatively in interagency and transnational enforcement initiatives, including an important initiative with several of the agencies represented here today.
Last week, on behalf of the coordinating partners – the department’s Consumer Protection Branch, the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service – the Justice Department announced the results of the fourth annual Money Mule Initiative, a proactive, interagency effort to disrupt fraudsters’ use of money mule networks. Money mules assist fraudsters by receiving money from victims and forwarding it to fraud organizers and are used in many fraudulent schemes that target seniors.
During this year’s initiative, agents from seven federal law enforcement agencies, including from the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Labor and Department of the Treasury, collectively took action against approximately 4,750 money mules – this is double the number of actions taken during last year’s Money Mule Initiative. Actions were taken in every state and ranged from warning letters to civil and administrative actions to criminal charges.
These actions undoubtedly curtailed fraud schemes around the world. But disrupting fraudsters’ reliance on money mules also requires ensuring that those being recruited as money mules – many of whom are unwitting participants – are able to recognize the signs that they are being asked to facilitate fraudulent activity and refuse to participate. I’m pleased that we are joined in this public outreach effort by the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, AmeriCorp Seniors and the Administration for Community Living.
The success of this initiative is emblematic of what we can accomplish when we harness the collective strengths of all our agencies. While this year’s phenomenal results are a credit to every participating agency, I want to thank in particular the Postal Inspection Service, which has long been a leader not only in combatting money mules but comprehensively tackling elder fraud. Chief Inspector Barksdale, thank you for your partnership and leadership.
While enforcement responses are critical to combatting elder abuse, they are not – and cannot be – our only response. Many abuses against older adults go unreported because victims are afraid to come forward or simply do not know who to call.
An integral part of the department’s approach to combatting elder abuse is to empower seniors and their families to protect themselves and prevent abuse before it occurs. For example, the department engages in public education campaigns and direct outreach to older adults to help them recognize the warning signs of potential abuse and financial scams and to prevent those crimes from happening.
The department also manages the National Elder Fraud Hotline, which connects experienced case managers with callers reporting suspected fraud, and the department’s Elder Justice Website provides a wealth of information to older adults and their families on local resources and services available to them. And where crimes do occur, the department supports programs that seek to restore the safety and dignity of victims of elder abuse through individual advocacy, crisis intervention, emergency shelter and civil legal assistance.
Finally, as we look ahead, we must also seek to advance equity and access to justice for our seniors:
One of the ways that the department advances equity for older Americans, who disproportionately have one or more disabilities, is by vigorously enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act. This work includes requiring jurisdictions to eliminate physical barriers that prevent people with disabilities from accessing public facilities, such as libraries, parks and polling places, and to ensure that people with disabilities, including seniors, are able to live in the most integrated settings appropriate to their needs and are not unnecessarily institutionalized. By removing barriers to public facilities and community-based services, the department ensures that people with disabilities, including seniors, can fully and equally participate in community life.
Finally, the President recently reaffirmed the Justice Department’s role in leading efforts across government to ensure equal access to justice. The department has already increased direct support for our seniors by providing legal services to hundreds of older crime victims through the Elder Justice Civil Legal Services Program Fellows. In the future, the department seeks to expand its access to justice function for all, including seniors, through its newly re-established Office for Access to Justice.
This office will have expanded priority areas including expanding civil legal representation, fostering health justice and medical legal partnerships and ensuring economic opportunity and fairness by addressing barriers to equal access to justice that arise through, among other things, consumer protection, bankruptcy and eviction and foreclosure proceedings.
While I know that everyone gathered today has done extraordinary work to advance the cause of elder justice, we all know that there is still much to be done.
In the days ahead, the department will continue to strengthen efforts to seek and deliver justice for older Americans through a coordinated approach. Among other things, we will continue to mobilize our Elder Justice Coordinators in all 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices nationwide and deploy the resources and expertise of the Justice Department’s recently-revived Office for Access to Justice.
On behalf of the Justice Department, I want to thank you again for all that you have done and will do to advance the cause of elder justice. My colleagues and I look forward to hearing from you and continuing to work alongside you in the days ahead.