Protecting the elderly Abuse on rise: Prosecutions pursued, new efforts weighed to address problem.

September 01, 1997

THE CRIMINAL conviction last month of a former Baltimore County counselor for assaulting a disabled older man highlights a largely hidden, and growing, problem. Nationwide, 1.8 million cases of abuse of the elderly and disabled are reported annually. But according to the American Medical Association, only 1 in 14 cases -- 7 percent -- is reported to a public agency.

As Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. explains: "Seldom is there a witness. Very often seniors are disoriented and can't be very good witnesses." In the Randallstown case, however, two witnesses saw the attack by the social services counselor on the group home resident, who has cerebral palsy.

The attorney general's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit has been aggressive in pursuing charges of elderly abuse in nursing homes and other licensed care facilities. The unit receives several hundred calls a year, and investigator Joseph Bostwick is credited with much of the success in achieving a 98 percent conviction rate since the office was formed in 1989.

Most of the reports of elder abuse, however, occur outside the licensed facilities. About 4,000 cases a year are reported to Maryland law enforcement and social services agencies; in two-thirds of them, abuse or neglect is confirmed or indicated. That can lead to official care from Adult Protective Services or to aid from other community services.

With the rapid increase in the older segment of the population, a rise in the number of elder abuse cases is expected. Vulnerability of the victims, combined with the stress on caregivers, contribute to opportunities for abuse. This despite a variety of state and local programs that could intervene and help victims.

To investigate and develop more effective ways to deal with the problem, the Department of Human Resources will bring together a group of national and state authorities on crimes against the elderly, Sept. 8 at the University of Baltimore. This follows an excellent education program and handbook on elderly abuse for physicians developed by the state medical society earlier this year.

Stronger efforts by health and social service professionals are important in addressing this abuse. Like all forms of family violence, however, the broader responsibility for prevention and remedy rests with all of us.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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