Unfortunately, like children, countless elderly people are also victims of crimes. And like child abuse, these elderly victims are most vulnerable with very little ability to seek help from their abusers.
Enter the Elder Justice Act of 2007. Penned by a bi-partisan group in Congress, the bill would help seniors by combating abuse and neglect by their caregivers. Along with Sen. Blanch Lincoln (D-Ark), Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill) and Rep Peter Kind (R-NY), Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has lent his support to this protective measure.
"Thousands of cases of elder abuse go unaddressed every day," Hatch says. "(Currently) we have armies of federal employees fighting child and domestic abuse, yet we don't have one federal employee working full-time combating elder abuse.
"That's going to change when this bill becomes law."
And the statistics are staggering.
According to The National Center on Elder Abuse, anywhere from 1-2 million people over 65 years of age suffer from some form of abuse or neglect at the hands of their trusted caregiver. Yet it is believed only one in 14 cases is ever reported to the proper authorities. In addition, current estimates put the overall reporting
of financial exploitation at only 1 in 25 cases, suggesting there may be at least
5 million financial abuse victims each year.
"(This data shows) every year, millions of American seniors are victims of abuse and neglect," Rep. Emanuel says. "This bill will bring focus to the problem of elder abuse and elevate it to the same level as other family violence issues, like domestic violence and child abuse.
"Elder abuse remains under-researched, under-reported, under-funded and under-prosecuted."
The Elder Abuse Justice Act offers a multi-pronged approach to keeping the elderly safe from predators and swindlers.
The Adult Protective Services (APS) Funding provides a first-time direct funding stream that authorizes $100 million a year for each of the four years of the bill. An Elder Justice Coordinating Council would make recommendations to the Secretary of the HHS to coordinate activities concerning the areas of protecting the elderly. And an advisory board would be established to create short and long-term plans in the area of elderly justice.
But that's not all. Specialized forensics would be created and studied so healthcare professionals and others can learn the signs to look for to uncover elderly abuse and neglect. The bill would require immediate reporting to law enforcement when problems and suspicions were apparent. More than $30 million would be approved to train and enhance long-term healthcare staff training. Finally, the bill would create studies that would review state practices and laws relating to elder justice.
Hatch vows to continue to fight until the Elder Justice Act is passed.
"Knowing that this would make a difference in the lives of so many in Utah and across the nation helps me keep fighting to get this bill signed into law," Hatch says. "And that's the key for me--take action. In fact, taking action is the best way for anyone to combat this horrible problem. A great tragedy of elder abuse is that most of it--some statistics put it at 80 percent--is committed by family members.
"Thousands of cases of elder abuse go unaddressed every day, whether physical abuse, sexual abuse, or financial exploitation," he adds. "And by some estimates, as many as 2 million American seniors are abused by their caregivers every year."
The problem is not only physical, sexual and emotional. Rather, many elderly people are prime prey for those, including family members, who illegally take hold of another person's money. According to Hatch, this problem often occurs over miles.
"Many times when seniors are exploited financially, it's done from out of state," Hatch says. "If a senior in Utah is swindled by someone in Texas, it's very difficult for prosecutors to go after the swindlers."
The Elder Justice Act addresses such problems. "With federal mechanisms in place," Hatch says, "law enforcement will have better tools for exploitation that crosses state lines."
Local Utahns agree with Hatch's approach and feel that ignorance of the topic is probably one of the biggest problems.
"Elderly abuse is not something I've ever really thought about," says Missy Tompkins of Riverton. "You hear about things like child abuse, and it's disgusting, but other than occasionally on the news, I haven't really heard much about it."
But, like the rest of the nation, Utah is certainly not immune to this national epidemic.
"According to the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services, about 20,000 seniors reported they have experienced some kind of abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation," Hatch says.
"Twenty thousand people is a big number," Tompkins adds after being shown the number. "If you think about something affecting 20,000 people, you have to figure we each probably know someone who has been affected by this (problem.)"
Utah does have laws regarding elderly abuse. Utah Code ßß 62A-3-301 et seq., not only gives Adult Protective Services (APS) the right to investigate possible elderly abuse, it makes it a crime for individuals such as health care providers if they do not contact APS in a suspected case. APS is part of the Department of Human Resources, and while it is a social service, APS has no law enforcement authority.
Holladay resident Jacob Smith, who helped care for his ailing mother prior to her death in 2002, believes everything possible to protect the elderly should be done and that a bill such as this is a long time coming.
"When you think about it, everything we have we owe to the generations that have come before us," Smith says. "When we were younger and in some cases not even alive, these were the people laying the foundation for the things we enjoy in our lives."
Smith said while watching his mother deteriorate was difficult, knowing that he and his siblings were taking care of her needs and make her comfortable during her last days gives him solace today.
"I know we did everything we could to take care of my mother," he says. "I can't understand how anyone could ever hurt or take advantage of an elderly person. I hope everyone understands just how important this bill is."
Hatch, for his part, does.
"With more than 77 million baby boomers retiring over the next three decades, we cannot wait any longer for this legislation to pass," he says. "One of my top priorities of the 110th Congress is having the Elder Justice Act signed into law. Older Americans deserve nothing less."