Easy Targets: Elder Abuse

By KBJR News 1

May 23, 2012 Updated May 23, 2012 at 9:20 AM CDT

A growing number of Americans are living out their golden years in fear.
Every year between one and two million vulnerable adults are abused or neglected, and the experts say for every report of abuse, five reports are not made.

From financial exploitation, to physical and sexual abuse, America's senior citizens are increasingly becoming targets of crime and abuse.

"These are local kids from our community and the allegations against them are shocking," says Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels.

A recent case of sexual abuse in southern Minnesota rocked the nation. Two teenaged girls, who worked in a nursing home in Albert Lea, sexually abused elderly residents suffering from Alzheimer's and dementia.

And then, closer to home, reports from the Minnesota Department of Health, showed that three employees at Edgewood Vista in Virginia had slapped, pinched and verbally taunted elderly residents.

"I was mortified," says one Virginia resident. "I'm really relieved and glad that they caught them."

Many wrote these incidents off as isolated events. But experts fear elder abuse is much more widespread than we know.

"It's hard to know because of the secrecy when nursing home residents are cared for at night with some of the staff, or the secrecy that occurs behind closed doors in anyone's individual homes," says Iris Freeman of the Center on Elder Justice and Policy at the William Mitchell College of Law.

While the recent nursing home cases made the headlines, Minnesota's Senior Ombudsman Deb Holtz says elders are often most vulnerable when taken care of in private homes.

"Most of the cases we see, when it is that severe of neglect, happens in the community, in people's homes," says Holtz.

"Many cases of deprivation occur in such secrecy, in such silence, that by the time the victim is found there has been such disastrous harm that the victim is not likely to live," adds Iris.

"We see it oftentimes; a caregiver is alone taking care of someone with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, and they get frustrated in dealing with that, and they don't know how to cope," says Dave Hall of Carlton County Adult Protection.

A big part of the problem is that often senior citizens are afraid to report crimes of abuse.

"It's a closed door. I should be dealing with it. Nobody needs to know about it," says Tribal Elder Victim Services, Harbir Kaur.

"A lot of time, the family, it's embarrassing for them because they see it's more of a family issue," says Sergeant Chad Nagorski of the Duluth Police Department.

Experts say it's not only embarrassment, some seniors feel they just don't have a choice.

"They're afraid of being sent somewhere worse. Or they're getting subtle threats from the individual whose doing it," says Holtz.

As the elderly population grows experts say various forms of dementia will make them increasingly easy targets. And they say law enforcement and lawmakers must work more aggressively to protect our senior citizens.

"There isn't enough being done. There's nothing addressing prevention as far as I can see," says Tribal Spiritual Adviser, Lee Staples.

One step in that direction happened this legislative session. A new Minnesota law makes some forms of elder neglect a felony level crime.

"Before this law we had laws where if you intentionally neglected your animals you might be punished more than if you intentionally neglected your mom or your grandma," says Holtz.

"There are cases in the record that showed that one, literally, could be fined a greater number of dollars for running a red light than for starving an old person nearly to death," says Freeman.

Many experts see the new Minnesota law as a step in the right direction but feel more needs to be done.

"We have to make sure that county governments, the vulnerable adults units, that all county government and local law enforcement, that everybody's on the same page," says former Duluth Police Chief, Scott Lyons.

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As we continue our special report on "Easy Targets" Barbara will take a look at what's being done to protect our vulnerable senior citizens and how we can recognize signs of abuse among our elderly population.

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