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Despite the fact that respect for a society’s elders is a shared value across cultures worldwide, the issue of elder abuse persists. As I learned this week with Senior Advocate Attorney Joshua Grossman, seniors are among the most frequently exploited and neglected members of our community.
The California Welfare and Institutions Code defines elder abuse as physical abuse, neglect, financial abuse, abandonment, isolation, abduction or other treatment resulting in physical harm, pain, or mental suffering. This definition also includes the deprivation by a care custodian of any goods or services that the senior needs in order to avoid physical harm or mental suffering.
According to the Bureau of Justice, over 2,150,000 elder abuse cases are opened each year. In a 2017 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse, it was found that 68% of Adult Protective Service cases are responses to instances of elder abuse. What is even more striking is that 66% of those abuse cases are perpetrated by the senior’s own children or spouse.
Based on projections from the State of California Department of Finance, our senior population here in San Mateo County is expected to grow by over 70% by 2030. The District Attorney’s Office states that elder abuse—both physical and financial—is one of the fastest growing crimes in our county.
Although elder abuse remains a prevalent issue, an alarming amount of cases go unreported. Victims may not report abuse because of their relationship to the abuser, because of their diminished capacity to understand that they are being mistreated, or simply because they are afraid. For every reported case of elder abuse, it is estimated that as many as 24 cases go unreported.
As a Seniors Advocate Attorney, Josh describes the initiative taken at Legal Aid to fight elder abuse. He explains, “At Legal Aid, we are constantly educating seniors about their right to live free from all forms of abuse. We explain the options available to them, including how to pursue legal action and how to utilize the community resources available to keep them safe.”
In his work at Legal Aid, Josh deals with a variety of tragic elder abuse cases. During our conversations, he shared a story of one of his cases.
“Martha,” a 67 year old woman with incapacitating back and hip problems, lives on a fixed income and shares a home with her adult son, a strong man who does not contribute to the household income. He is mentally unstable, and is frequently angry and abusive toward his mother.
In a fit of rage one day, Martha’s son forcefully pushed her over in the kitchen, losing his own balance and landing on top of her. He fled, leaving Martha alone on the kitchen floor in severe pain. Martha managed to get herself to a hospital, where nurses alerted the police. Soon after, Martha’s son was arrested for elder abuse and incarcerated. On top of the physical violence toward his mother, Martha’s son had set fire to parts of the home, forcing her to stay in a hotel while the city assessed the property damage. After her release from the hospital, a social worker with San Mateo County Adult Protective Services referred Martha to Legal Aid.
Because Martha was unable to reach Legal Aid’s offices, Josh met with her at the hotel where she was staying. Martha told Josh that she constantly feared for her safety. She was very worried that her son was infuriated by the arrest, and would come after her as soon as he was released from jail. Martha needed help fast.
Josh explained to Martha that the law could protect and free her from a life of violence and fear. He explained the legal options available to keep her safe, including the right to a temporary restraining order to protect her after her son was released from jail, and while his elder abuse case was pending.
Josh prepared a petition for an elder abuse restraining order, and represented Martha at the hearing two weeks later. The judge issued a three-year protective restraining order for Martha. With her protective order, Martha can now live without the constant fear of being harmed, and is able to recover in the safety of her own home.
Extreme situations like Martha’s are not uncommon. However, elder abuse occurs on many levels, which is why Legal Aid does more than just intervene in extreme cases.
Beyond achieving justice for severely abused seniors like Martha, Legal Aid reaches out to the senior community—in collaboration with government social workers and other nonprofit partners—in order to inform seniors of their legal rights proactively. In my time spent with Josh in Senior Advocacy, I observed firsthand the depth of Legal Aid’s outreach and community impact. Our community work allows us to respond to the growing problem of elder abuse, restoring both safety and dignity to seniors experiencing any form of mistreatment.
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