Abuse of elders, often by family members, is a growing problem

Mickey Rooney
Entertainer Mickey Rooney pauses while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 2, 2011, about elder abuse, before the Senate Aging Committee. Rooney told the committee he has been a victim of abuse.

It was an April evening a year ago when a mother and son began arguing in their Moorhead home. She accused him of stealing her money.

The unemployed and divorced son, 57, who had moved into the home three and a half years earlier, choked his mother as she sat in her rocking chair, according to court documents. He then pushed or threw her down the basement stairs.

While she lay at the bottom of the stairs, her son stepped over her as he went outside to bury 369 $100 bills in the backyard. About 45 minutes later he called an ambulance.

Like many victims of elder abuse, the woman didn't want to tell her story. The woman still fears her son will harm her. MPR News has decided not to name him to protect her identity.

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But her plight is increasingly common. Elder abuse isn't tracked as a crime in Minnesota, so statistics are hard to come by, but experts say the problem is growing.

The abuse frequently happens in the victim's home, and the abuser is often a family member. The typical case involves money, physical abuse or neglect -- sometimes with brutal consequences.

The Moorhead woman suffered a broken hip, dislocated shoulder and broken ribs. No longer able to live independently, she will be in a nursing home for the rest of her life, Clay County Prosecutor Jenny Samarzja said.

The abuser is usually a trusted family member or caregiver, and victims are reluctant to seek help. They fear an investigation will lead to more abuse.

Prosecutors were only able to charge her son with third-degree assault.

It's not clear how often such abuse occurs.

Minnesota tracks abuse involving vulnerable adults -- anyone 18 and older who is physically or mentally impaired and unable to care for themselves. More than of the reported cases of vulnerable adult abuse in Minnesota involve people 65 and older, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Nationally, an estimated 11 percent of people 60 and older experience some form of abuse or exploitation, according to a 2009 study by the National Institute of Justice.

But only about 20 percent of all cases are ever reported, say experts at the National Center on Elder Abuse.

The Clay County Attorney's office is using a $290,000 federal grant to train police, social workers and other caregivers to recognize elder abuse.

Many cases of abuse are reported by someone other than the victim, said Kathy Nornes, an adult protection worker with Clay County Social Services.

Nornes said elder abuse is most often perpetrated by a trusted family member or caregiver. That makes the victim reluctant to seek help. Often, they fear an investigation will lead to more abuse.

"A lot of times when I go out to talk to an alleged victim, they're really downplaying it," she said. "'No, it wasn't that serious,' or 'No, he didn't mean to do that.' Nothing they want to talk about, or nothing they want anything done about."

After attending a county-sponsored training program, Nornes began sending more potential elder abuse cases to law enforcement. But she said it's very difficult to monitor a caregiver who is working in the elderly person's home.

Nornes has a current case where she suspects the caregiver is using an elderly woman's food stamp card to buy groceries for herself. But it's hard to prove.

"There's no oversight here because this woman is not aware," she said of the elderly woman. "I don't know that there's anything wrong going on. But it would be so easy. Most people are honest, but if you're not honest it would be pretty easy to rip people off here."

As a result of the county's efforts to train people to spot elder abuse, police and prosecutors and social service personnel are working more collaboratively. Criminal investigators are digging deeper to look for financial fraud, and more cases of elder abuse are making their way into the court system.

That local team approach to elder abuse is critical, said Linda Dawson, elder justice coordinator for the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life.

Dawson said many states don't track elder abuse, and laws protecting elders are outdated. But she said there's evidence the problem is growing during these tough economic times, when more older Americans are being cared for at home.

"It's really challenging for all the systems -- adult protective services, law enforcement, all the social systems -- to be keeping track of where people are being cared for, how they are being cared for, and then responding to issues when they arise," she said.

When police responded to the Moorhead woman's house, they investigated the alleged theft, but could find no evidence the $36,900 buried in the back yard was stolen. So the money was returned to the son.

He spent about four months in jail for the assault, and will be on probation for five years. As of this month, court records show he still hadn't paid $3,700 in restitution for medical bills.

Samarzja said the son's sentence could have been tougher if the mother was considered a vulnerable adult under Minnesota law. But she wasn't, because before the assault she was living independently.

"I would like to see some laws that deal with physical abuse, sexual abuse, financial exploitation or neglect of an elder," Samarzja said. "What we have now are those same statutes, but only against vulnerable adults."