State efforts strengthen elder abuse prevention

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Abuse among the elderly – an increasing population in the state – is so widespread that state leaders have begun implementing a variety of solutions.

“They grew up in an earlier time where people trusted other people,” said Jeanne Barber, executive assistant for the Manistee County Council on Aging. “They don’t always speak out for themselves.”

More than 73,000 Michigan seniors have experienced elder abuse, according to the state attorney general’s office. Abuse includes neglect, physical abuse and financial exploitation. Among the efforts underway:

  • Recently proposed legislation would allow investment brokers and financial advisors to put a 15-day hold on someone’s account to allow for a criminal investigation if they suspect financial theft is taking place.
  • Attorney General Dana Nessel initiated an elder abuse task force, which released a standardized elder abuse investigation form last month, the first of its kind.  
  • A $1 million grant package from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to 12 local organizations to implement programs to prevent and address elder abuse. 

Rep. Angela Witwer, D-Delta Township, said she hopes for a hearing by the Financial Services Committee on her bill to freeze assets during a criminal investigation. It would also create the same protections for disabled individuals.

Similar legislation was introduced in a previous session but Witwer said the bill’s broad support makes it more likely to pass this time around. She said it was introduced too late in the previous session to gain traction. 

“We do many bills in the House, but this is a bill that has bipartisan support,” she said. “This just gives another tool in the toolbox of protecting seniors.”

One proposed expansion of the bill would give the ability to freeze accounts to banks, instead of just investment brokers and service agents, Witwer said.

“The local banks, they know their customers,” said Barber, who supports the expansion. “They deal with them on a regular basis, and if they see those irregularities, someone needs to draw attention to that, just to protect the seniors.”

The attorney general’s new investigation form helps police note abuse and neglect and includes questions to ask, statutes to reference and information on where to report abuse, said Cynthia Farrell, a task force member and the state’s adult protection services manager.

“It’s long overdue. It’s something that’s been going on and we need to address it, especially with our population aging,” Farrell said.  

State Police will implement the standardized form in November, and a chief of police conference in February will explain to local police departments how to use it. 

Physical abuse and neglect are harder to prevent and address than theft. 

Michigan’s Adult Protective Services and law enforcement agencies investigate abuse and neglect, often referring cases to each other, Farrell said. 

The agency can determine if adults are vulnerable, and if they were harmed, Farrell said.

She said in cases of abuse or neglect, Adult Protective Services can intervene only if the person is vulnerable and cannot protect herself or himself because of a cognitive, physical or mental impairment or advanced age.

“We can’t impose our standards on somebody else – you have to work with that person and determine ‘do they understand what’s occurring?’” Farrell said. 

A senior who is hoarding could be experiencing self-neglect, but the state couldn’t provide services if the senior declined them, she said.

Barber said this complicates investigations. 

“As long as the senior seems to understand that this probably isn’t the best way to live but they’re okay with it, a lot of times nothing gets done,” Barber said. “I do get frustrated with the system sometimes because I think that there are people that we really need to help but our hands are tied.”

Health department grants may fill in the gaps.

The Area Agency on Aging of Western Michigan received about $78,000 to begin a new project that assists seniors facing eviction due to hoarding, Farrell said. 

“They also have to agree to medical counseling,” Farrell said. “You can’t just address the symptom which is the hoarding. You have to address the underlying cause.” 

(This story was updated 10/25/19 to clarify when state officials can intervene in cases of abuse or neglect.)

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