Officials: Awareness of, data on senior abuse is needed

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol Reporter

Public awareness of the elder abuse “epidemic” is key to stopping it, Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative officials insist.

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called elder abuse an "epidemic," much of it hidden and unseen. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called elder abuse an “epidemic,” much of it hidden and unseen. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

“It’s so important we get on top of it early,” Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom said Tuesday, June 11, at a press conference in St. Paul.

No one really knows how many elders face abuse of trust, many times by family members, during the Golden Years.

Associate Director Iris Freeman, Center for Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell College of Law, said just over the past few years some 30,000 reports of elder abuse have been received by county social service agencies in Minnesota. These numbers do include police reports and reports to other agencies.

“Unfortunately, one of our gaps is information,” Freeman said.

The most common forms of elder abuse are physical, emotional and sexual abuse; neglect and financial exploitation.

Scott Campbell, a retired Duluth police officer, spoke of a brother wrongfully tapping into their elderly mother’s savings of $115,000, leaving less than $700.

“It’s one done by a family member,” he said of the abuse.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo spoke at a St. Paul press conference on Tuesday, June 11, on behalf of the Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative Project, a group committed to ending the abuse of seniors. The Anoka County Attorney's Office, working with another group, started the initiative. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo spoke at a St. Paul press conference on Tuesday, June 11, on behalf of the Minnesota S.A.F.E. Elders Initiative Project, a group committed to ending the abuse of seniors. The Anoka County Attorney’s Office, working with another group, started the initiative. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

About two-thirds of elder financial exploitation prosecuted in his county, Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo said, involved family members.

Things are being done. House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee Chairwoman Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, also a county prosecutor, said “very significant” changes to state law have been made to make prosecution of elder abuse easier. And tougher. For instance, in cases of financial exploitation, exploiters can be charged for every six months of the exploitation, plus face an aggregate sentence. Additionally, restitution can be sought, even if the elderly victim has passed away, she said.

To heighten public awareness, the Elders Initiative co-produced with Twin Cities Public Television a 26-minute documentary on elder abuse that will be aired beginning June 16.

Working with Hilstrom, law students at William Mitchell constructed a mobile device app, S.A.F.E. MN, that includes a list of signs of abuse, reporting agencies, others tools for law enforcement. The public, too, can download the app for free.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, spoke of significant changes in state law that made it easier for prosecutors to go after elder abusers. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, spoke of significant changes in state law that made it easier for prosecutors to go after elder abusers. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Elders Initiative, which grew out of a partnership between the Anoka County Attorney’s Office and Vulnerable Adult Justice Project, also produced a Prosecutors Trial Notebook. The notebook includes sample complaints, briefs, sentencing guidelines and other information useful for prosecutors when taking alleged elder abusers to court.

“This crime is an abuse of trust,” St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said.

Warning signs of physical and sexual elder abuse include bruises, pressure marks and internal injuries, often accompanied by inconsistent explanations for how they occurred. Signs of elder neglect includes weight loss, malnutrition and dehydration, a lack of supervision or necessary health aids. Red flags of financial exploitation includes unpaid bills, abrupt asset transfers and a lack of basic financial information.

When trying to determine if elder abuse is occurring, experts suggest starting by asking three basic questions:

–Is someone taking or using your money without your permission?

–Is anybody hurting you?

–Are you afraid of anyone?

Be mindful, experts warn, not to ask these questions in the presence of a possible abuser.

Minnesota, as across the county, will see a surge of elderly residents as baby boomers move into their retirement years. The number of Minnesotans over the age of 65 will more than double over the next 25 years to 1.3 million. According to the League of Minnesota Cities, there will be more Minnesotans over the age of 65 by 2020 than of school age.

 

Tim Budig can be reached at tim.budig@ecm-inc.com

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