Sunday, July 19, 2009

Prosecutor: Elder Abuse Cases Frequently Not Viewed as Serious Crimes

Only one in six elder abuse cases is ever reported.

If getting victims to report abuse is difficult, so is persuading the judicial system of its seriousness, says one official.

“Elder abuse cases, for whatever inappropriate reason, are not considered as severe,” said Rod Pacheco, Riverside County district attorney.
“If they're financial, they're considered even less serious.”

Riverside County is one of the few statewide with a special team to prosecute elder abuse cases.

As with child abuse, domestic abuse and sexual assault, elders deal with embarrassment and shame, law enforcement and advocates say.

In many cases, they know their abuser. The California Attorney General's office estimates two- thirds of abusers are family members, friends and caregivers.
But, unlike other crimes, elders have to deal with prejudice because of their age.
“The problem is that elders are marginalized to the point of being invisible,” said Sharon Merriman, co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse. “A lot of times with older individuals the issues aren't even seen.

“There is ageism that exists that doesn't want to look at the issue of older people.”
And it's not just the public that needs educating.

Law enforcement officials say crimes against the elderly are often easy to dismiss because of their age.

Tristan Svare, a San Bernardino County deputy district attorney with the elder abuse prosecution team, has heard some unsettling dismissals like, “They're old. They didn't have to live anyway.”
“Sometimes they view financial crime as less serious even though the impact with the elderly can be devastating,” Svare said.

“Unfortunately, ignorance runs the entire spectrum.”
San Bernardino County has had a special prosecution team for elder abuse cases since 2000.

Protecting elders — which in the California penal code is defined as anyone 65 and older — can be tricky. Legislators and law enforcement must strike a balance between protecting those who need it and respecting autonomy, advocates say.

State Sen. John Benoit, R-Bermuda Dunes, authored SB 246, which requires in-home supportive services, or IHSS, to conduct criminal background checks.

“It's become the fastest-growing crime, identity theft and the number one identity class are the people who grew up doing things with a handshake,” Benoit said.
The state's $26 billion budget shortfall could also mean program cuts that would leave seniors more vulnerable. IHSS, which provides funding to help pay for in-home care so seniors don't have to be admitted into nursing homes, is among those at risk.
“We have very scarce taxpayers dollars and we should care how those are spent,” said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-West Hollywood.

“It is our job, collectively, that the most vulnerable people among us are treated with dignity.”


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