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Nationwide, specifically in New York City, nursing and adult care abuse remains common. Often it’s in the form of emotional mistreatment, physical harm, or financial scams. But civil advocates called elder abuse attorneys to fight for aging people. In particular, they can file elder abuse cases in civil court (learn more). There are also City Attorneys and Prosecutors who prosecute the worst abuses. But the need far outweighs the public resources available to fight it.
After Hurricane Sandy, it only took a short time before Jeanne Zieff, a Staten Island social worker, began seeing the fallout. Before Thanksgiving, Zieff counseled an 88-year older woman who had recently received an $8,000 FEMA check for storm damage.
Sadly, her life as an adult daughter and adult grandchildren made her give them the FEMA check. In another example, Zieff says an elderly grandmother loaned her granddaughter a room in her house. Important here is that the young woman’s basement apartment had flooded. So she needed a favor. But she refused to leave home and caused a lot of mischiefs.
Five non-profit agencies run city-funded elder abuse programs. Zieff is the elderly abuse program coordinator for the Community Agency for Senior Citizens. Zieff said she discussed the situation with the 88-year-old woman and explained she has the right to say “no.” She did a lot of role-playing with the woman so she would remain firm in asserting herself.
And she told the abused woman to call her first if anyone asked her for any more money. The Staten Island social worker then visited the older woman’s home, where she said the interlopers were not happy to see her. Also, she told the woman’s daughter that the FEMA check was made out to her mother, not her. And she also told the younger woman that her mother uses the money however she wants.
But according to Ziff, whether there is stormy weather or not, she and several coworkers work on at least 30 cases of elder abuse every month. She said their program is the only program on Staten Island to assist abused senior citizens. The social workers run into issues of physical neglect, financial exploitation, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and verbal and emotional mistreatment.
Even with the groups and agencies uniting to raise awareness of the increasing elder abuse problem and developing strategies to battle it, they are at risk. These programs’ funding was recently subject to cuts, even though they were once assumed to be included in the city budget. They are now faced with yearly campaigns to renew their contracts.
One agency director said this means operating for months without the help of city money. We have all heard the stories of attorneys being forced to hire their court reporters and the shortened workweeks of the public employees of Los Angeles County and the State of California. It is no different in the State of NY either, says nursing abuse lawyer Michael P. Ehline, Esq.
The director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, Bobbie Sackman, said that the programs now receive $800,000 a year in discretionary City Council funding for approximately 300 senior centers in five boroughs. Sackman said they are severely under-resourced when looking at the size of the area that must be covered and the intensity of the cases.
Social workers operate with a small staff and modest funding while facing rising caseloads. The social workers are conducting intensive casework. And in some instances, it means listening for hours in counseling sessions. They also make daily home visits, accompany clients to court hearings and the bank, and stay in touch with other agencies.
One of the agencies includes the Adult Protective Services or NYPD. They also hold outreach sessions for senior centers, first responders, police precincts, religious organizations, hospitals, bank tellers, and others to educate them on the signs of elder abuse and how to get help or make referrals.
The professionally trained workforce remains the eyes and ears for the city’s elder abuse problem. So they can work with the emotional and practical side skillfully. Plus, they can help provide support and other needed help.
The director of the elder abuse and police relations unit at the Carter Burden Center for the Aging on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ken Onaitis, said one coworker and he covers half of Manhattan. He said they manage between 40 and 50 ongoing cases. Plus, he said they take on approximately 15 new patients every month. Those who work with senior citizens claim that Elder abuse is a hidden public health crisis. They say no class or ethnic group is immune to this type of abuse.
Zieff says that this is one of the most under-reported crimes. He asserted that approximately ninety percent of the time, the senior’s children commit the crime. She said when your child commits a crime; it involves many issues. She said the first is denial, and then the older adult does not want to tell their child is stealing from them. There is a feeling of embarrassment and the urge to protect them.
In New York state in 2010, a study was conducted on the prevalence of elder abuse carried out in part by the city’s Department for the Aging. They determined that for every elder abuse case known to the elder abuse service system, as many as 24 points go unreported.
In New York City, approximately nine percent of the residents are age 60 or older, which equals about 120,000 seniors who experience some form of elder abuse within a year. The study found that older seniors suffered a higher rate of elder abuse at approximately 14%.
The number of abuse incidents is likely to rise, with the aging population living longer and the baby boomers joining the seniors’ ranks. There are almost a million New Yorkers in the city; approximately 12% of the people are 65 or older, with nearly 900,000 that will join that age bracket, within the next decade, from the 2010 census data.
According to experts, the most common form of mistreatment is financial exploitation. And theft like this has only increased with a lack of civility, a less mighty dollar, and greed. Philanthropist Brooke Astor was in the headlines in 2009. This happened when her son was convicted of financial elder abuse. It was alleged that some stole her $200 million fortune. So, in that case, there was theft. But he also failed to provide her with adequate medical or general care.
Elder abuse workers often see seniors whose children take their monthly social security checks or make extra money while using their parent’s ATM cards. Evelyn Laureano, executive director of the Neighborhood Self-Help by Older Persons Project (SHOPP) in the Bronx, a city-funded elder abuse program, said seniors often come forward to seek help.
But many are not doing it not because of the abuse, but rather due to a symptom of it. For example, let’s take a utility shut-off notice or an impending eviction. Caseworkers are trained to look for specific markers. For example, why can’t a senior receiving $1,200 monthly pay their $500 monthly rental payment?
The elder program employees see a range of elder abuse cases and say it is as complicated as “any family and as diverse as New York itself.” They stated that “typical” examples could also vary by borough. Historically, Onassis says people have been attracted to Manhattan from all over the country.
And many have settled independently as adults. Many were single, with few friends or family outside the area. These seniors will often find a roommate to help cut expenses. And when the situation turns sour, the roommate will not leave, he said.
Another situation is the “new best friend,” a person who will initially offer care but then either absconds with money or becomes abusive. This remains a familiar dynamic with gullible seniors.
An example is where the senior believes the abuser is the only thing keeping them from going to a nursing home or is dependent on the abuser for some care, according to case managers.
Laureano said that the alleged abusers are often the adult children of the seniors who have a dependent relationship with their elderly parents. Scenarios include a recently divorced son or a relative with a substance abuse problem. Few elders, single-income moms, dads, or close family members will refuse shelter for an unemployed, homeless relative in need.
Other examples of mental illness exist. For example, an adult child completes a short-term stay in a psychiatric hospital. But they are later discharged to their mother’s care. However, the mother is 89 years old. Laureano said that fragile seniors often seek protection from the child’s violent temper in such cases.
Domestic violence is another issue involving a partner and takes all forms. One example is Bronx resident Carolyn Vonwhervin, who had been married to her husband for 41 years. As she described it, his behavior worsened two years ago.
For all these years, her husband was “very kind,” she said. But as he aged, he began shouting accusations and using profanity. The tirades worsened. Vonwhervin said it would come out of the blue, and she had no idea why. One day her husband became frustrated. So, in that case, he punched her in her stomach after he could not find something he was looking for.
Carolyn Vonwhervin said she felt like a lost person, and nothing like this had ever happened. Vonwhervin found SHOPP’s elder abuse Violence Intervention and Prevention program. He does so through referrals where the social worker and program director, Nereida Muñiz, assisted her in developing a safety plan.
The plan was a borrowed strategy from domestic violence programs. And this also included having an idea of where to go if her husband became violent and called 911. Muñiz accompanied Vonwhervin to family court to obtain an order of protection and discussed finding safe housing.
And later, Vonwhervin’s husband received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, prostate cancer, and dementia. Once medicated, his demeanor calmed down. So she was able to return home to care for him. But she needed the help of a home health aide until his death.
Eslyn Rawlings, age 71, is another person Muñiz recently began working with, who called 911. Rawlings said she had a bad day with her husband and is now receiving help for verbal and emotional abuse that she says went on for over 30 years.
Her husband has not commented on the violence. And this was the first time Rawlings mentioned her marriage problems. But she was delighted to get help. She said that the “Lord” provided someone to listen to her. Now she no longer feels alone.
According to Zieff, the words of these women, the abuse is very isolating. Social workers in these programs use supportive counseling and listen but prioritize physical safety; they say they work from the “strengths perspective.”
Onaitis said clients are asked to talk about the good things in their lives. Also, they are interrogated as to any problems they have experienced. The test is how they would handle the situation now, as opposed to how they dealt with these cases in the past.
They work on self-esteem building, not just calling the police to remove the abuser. So then they can come right back in the door, he said. A large part of what these agencies provide is practical assistance.
Social worker Muñiz stated in the Bronx, she hwasable to have seniors’ bank accounts restored by the bank when they reviewed the ATM camera footage. They have often seen it was not the account holder but an old customer making the withdrawals.
There is a citywide push to combat and the prevention of elder abuse. Several non-profit and government organizations 2009 formed the New York City Elder Abuse Center. This network responds and works in partnership with complex elder abuse cases with expertise.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office, in 2010, restructured its elder abuse unit, which now says it prosecutes approximately 700 elder abuse cases every year. The district attorney’s offices in Brooklyn and the Bronx also have elder abuse task forces.
For the first time, the City Council members could choose elder abuse as a topic to make educational pamphlets that they distribute to constituents. The brochures’ information provided an informative tone on what elder abuse is and where they could call for help and included the brochure’s five city-funded agencies.
Council Member Jessica Lappin said they want people to realize that elder abuse is more common than they think. She needs them to have the strength to report it when it happens to them or someone they may know. Lappin has chaired the Council’s Aging Committee since 2010.
According to Sackman, forming a “community watch,” which observes, identifies, and reports potential cases of elder abuse, and more public awareness is essential in battling elder abuse in the city. She has also requested that the City Council make funding elder abuse programs automatic rather than being subject to annual contracts.
Sackman asked if it is fair to question the commitment and if the money should be in place already. Lappin said that there is no real opposition to the base-lining of funding. Also, she would like to see the Council restore the base-lined status funding.
She said that everyone realizes the importance of these programs. But conflicting priorities remain. For example, we need to balance budgets. The fiscal reality remains. She said since 2009, the city’s Department for the Aging has seen significant budget cuts. And the amounts fell on senior citizen centers and other programs like Meals on Wheels.
Lappin admitted that it took the hurricane to highlight the importance of these services. And he said that Meals on Wheels volunteers carried food up many flights of stairs to seniors. These are those who were not generally on their routes. But last year, baseline funding was restored to senior centers.
But she believes it is too early to determine what will happen with this year’s budget. She said, especially with the hurricane, which will have a significant impact on the overall budget.
Zieff continues her work currently and stated that they were hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy. She says they believe they will see more exploitation of the elderly and people will be moving in with each other; she said she shudders to think what will occur with that happening.
Los Angeles has a history of taxing and spending with a lot of waste and corruption. We have seen businesses leaving our state in droves. Social service expenses have even forced a reduction in public court services. So filing fees have risen, and court reporters are no longer automatically provided to record official proceedings. One can see many parallels to what is happening in New York.
Michael is a managing partner at the nationwide Ehline Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys, APLC. He’s an inactive Marine and became a lawyer in the California State Bar Law Office Study Program, later receiving his J.D. from UWLA School of Law. Michael has won some of the world’s largest motorcycle accident settlements.