World Elder Abuse Day shines light on incidents

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, elder abuse, DES, Area Agency on Aging, neglect

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day will be recognized on June 15. And while Arizona has in years past made progress in reducing elder abuse and the exploitation of other vulnerable adults, thousands of seniors each month continue to report incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation. (Photo by Pexels)

World Elder Abuse Day shines light on incidents

June 15 is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. And while Arizona has in years past made strides in reducing elder abuse and the exploitation of other vulnerable adults, thousands of seniors each month continue to report incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation.

Within the Arizona Department of Economic Security lies Adult Protective Services. The unit investigates maltreatment of “vulnerable adults,” which include those with intellectual or developmental disabilities and often elderly adults reliant on others to take care of themselves.

DES Assistant Director Molly McCarthy said that Adult Protective Services goes by statute to determine which adults are vulnerable.

“We use that statutory definition as an individual who’s 18 years of age or older, who is unable to protect himself/herself from abuse, neglect or exploitation by others because of a physical or mental impairment,” McCarthy said. “It also refers and includes the vulnerable adult who is an incapacitated person.”

Arizona Department of Economic Security, elder abuse
Molly McCarthy

According to Adult Protective Services data, there were more than 34,000 individual reports of vulnerable adult maltreatment in fiscal year 2022 – the highest number in the past five fiscal years.

However, only a fraction of the reported allegations of maltreatment are substantiated. McCarthy said that this can be because of the preponderance of evidence required by an administrative law judge to substantiate the claims.

“That’s different than some of the criminal law thresholds,” McCarthy said. “There is a lot of room for cases to not meet those thresholds at various times.”

Approximately one in 10 individuals who are 60 years and older across the country are abused every year, according to the National Council on Aging.

Nationally, Arizona ranks at the middle of the pack at No. 33 for states with the best overall elder abuse protections, according to a study by WalletHub, a personal finance education website that publishes statistics and studies for different industries and demographics. The study ranked states across three dimensions: prevalence of elder abuse, resources for victims of elder abuse and protection of elderly individuals.

McCarthy said that “on a national level, it’s hard to compare (levels of abuse) because various states use substantiation in in different definitions … so it’s a little bit of apples to oranges.”

When Adult Protective Services receives a report of elder maltreatment, the DES division collects basic information regarding the vulnerable adult and alleged perpetrator of the abuse. Depending on the nature of the report – abuse, exploitation or neglect – different information is collected so Adult Protective Services can respond appropriately.

Adult abuse can be emotional, physical or sexual in nature, while exploitation of vulnerable adults may be related to financial scams, for example. Neglect can refer to caregiver neglect, where the caregiver does not provide necessities for the recipient of care, or can be self-neglect, wherein the vulnerable adult is no longer capable of taking care of themselves appropriately.

The filed report is then checked for investigation criteria. If the criteria are met, the report is shared with the local Adult Protective Services field office, which commences the investigation in conjunction with local law enforcement.

Law enforcement alone determines whether the incident of maltreatment rises to the level of a crime. Under certain revised statues, elder abuse is a felony charge that can vary from a class two to class six felony depending on the nature of the abuse.

There are several problems in the realm of elder abuse that prevent vulnerable adults from successfully reporting abuse they witness or abuse they experience themselves. Many vulnerable adults either do not recognize abuse when it is taking place or do not know how to report it once it has happened.

Mary Lynn Kasunic, CEO of the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) Region One, said that older adults are often afraid to ask for help because they fear being forced into a nursing home.

“They want to stay in their own home as long as possible,” Kasunic said.

Adult Protective Services and AAA have increased outreach and educational services for seniors and caregivers.

The AAA Region One has a senior helpline reachable by call or text 24 hours a day. Adult Protective Services also has a hotline, but it is available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, rather than 24/7.

For the day of awareness June 15, DES and Adult Protective Services are hosting the fifth annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day Conference, which will bring together dozens of organizations and more than 100 professionals to engage in breakout sessions on the topics of seeing, stopping and preventing elder abuse.

“Why the awareness day is so important is just making sure that people know the resources that are available,” McCarthy said.

The conference will feature keynote speakers from the Attorney General’s Office and the DES. More information can be found at des.az.gov/WEAADAZ.

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, House, DES, elder abuse
Rep. Leezah Elsa Sun, D-Avondale

In the realm of policy, several state lawmakers have brought forth legislation relating to elder abuse. One such lawmaker is Rep. Leezah Elsa Sun, D-Avondale.

Sun sponsored HB2368, which would have amended revised statues relating to long-term care facilities. The measure would have mandated that residential care, nursing and assisted-living institutions provide prospective patients with a pamphlet on identifying and reporting elder abuse.

“Elderly abuse has always been hard to be held for accountability and transparency, particularly in facilities that are privatized,” Sun said. “Privatization statutes and laws have always been written in (private facilities’) favor.”

Sun said that the inspiration for the bill stems from the Hacienda HealthCare facility scandal that generated national news attention a few years ago. Hacienda HealthCare is a Phoenix nursing care facility that authorities found in 2019 had an employee who sexually assaulted and impregnated a resident with an intellectual disability.

In January of this year, Reps. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, and Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, launched the House Ad Hoc Committee on Abuse and Neglect of Vulnerable Adults. The committee’s purpose is to “review and identify best practices for the reporting and investigative processes to ensure the safety of vulnerable adults,” according to committee documents.

Sun is hoping that she will be able to reintroduce her bill with the ad hoc committee next session. In the meantime, she said she will be revamping the bill and perfecting the language.

If an individual suspects that their loved one could be experiencing elder abuse, Adult Protective Services has resources online that show which signs to consider.

Neglect signs can include unkemptness, body odor, soiled bedding and/or appearing hungry or malnourished.

Signs of abuse can include unexplained bruises, sores or cuts. Decreased contact with friends and/or family and sudden changes in mood and/or behavior can also be indicators that an individual is being abused.

Signs of financial exploitation can include unexplained missing funds and/or valuables. A sudden change to one’s will or banking practices can also be a sign that an individual is being financially exploited.

To report abuse, neglect or the exploitation of a vulnerable adult, call 1-877-767-2385 to reach the Adult Protective Services helpline or visit the DES website for 24/7 online reporting. A report can be filed with Adult Protective Services at https://des.az.gov/services/basic-needs/adult-protective-services/report-adult-abuse

To learn more about the signs of abuse, visit https://des.az.gov/sites/default/files/dl/AAA-1283A.pdf?time=1685478256918