Mistreating elderly is alleged

Elkridge woman indicted on charges of abusing mother

June 23, 1999|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

An Elkridge woman has been indicted by a Howard County grand jury on charges of abusing her 80-year-old mother -- an allegation that is rarely prosecuted.

The Howard County Department of Social Services had received three reports that Irene Bray was mistreated by her daughter, court records show, before the allegations resulted in criminal charges. Department officials would not discuss the case.

On April 30, a Howard County police detective responded to a Columbia adult day care facility, where Bray was a client, after employees reported seeing bruises on her face and arms, officials said.

The detective questioned Bray, who said her 40-year-old daughter was "very rough," hit her in the face, grabbed her arms and face, pulled her knees up into her head and shoulders, grabbed her face and hit her in the face and mouth, causing her to bite her tongue, according to court records.

The detective noticed bruises above Bray's right eye and on her face, as well as a large bruise on her left hand, police said.

After questioning Bray's daughter, police charged her with abuse of a vulnerable person and second-degree assault. The social services department then put Irene Bray in a Columbia group home, officials said.

On Thursday, the grand jury indicted the daughter, Phyllis S. Bray of the 8000 block of Joetta Drive, on the same charges. That indictment was made public when it was signed by a Circuit Court judge yesterday.

While court records suggest a pattern of abuse, Phyllis Bray vigorously denies the charges and says the allegations are easily explained.

"I never hit my mother," she said.

Phyllis Bray has been taking care of her mother since 1991, when Bray suffered a minor stroke. Since then, her mother's medical condition has worsened. She suffers from emphysema, angina and can't raise her arms above her head, Phyllis Bray said.

The work is difficult, the daughter says. Not only does she care for her mother, which can be time-consuming and tedious labor, she said, she is raising a 14-year-old son and working at a Laurel thrift store.

"She's my mother," Phyllis Bray said. "I promised her that she would stay with me until it was medically necessary for her to be in a facility."

Phyllis Bray also said the charges stem from misunderstandings.

"Yes, I'm a little rough," Phyllis Bray said. "But the charges are exaggerated. I think my mom was in a confused state."

Her mother bruised her face when she fell in the bathroom, Phyllis Bray said. And the allegation that she pushed her mother's knees into her head was taken out of context -- she was helping her mother get dressed that night.

"If I wasn't there, she would have fallen off the bed," she said.

Phyllis Bray says she can recall being informed of only one complaint of mistreatment -- not three.

"This is all trumped up and blown out of context," she said. "The situation is way out of control."

Not allowed to see her mother or even know where she is staying, Phyllis Bray says she is worried about her mother, who has a doctor's appointment soon.

"I can't tell my mom I love her," she said. "My mother's original wishes were not to live with strangers."

Across the country, officials and advocates for the elderly say they are witnessing a sharp increase in abuse of the elderly -- a 150 percent jump nationwide between 1986 and 1996, the last year statistics are available.

In Howard County last year, county social workers investigated 60 cases involving abuse of vulnerable adults -- anyone over 18 whose disabilities make him or her a target for neglect or abuse. The majority of those cases involved the elderly, officials said.

About 37 percent of the 293,000 abuse reports to social services agencies nationwide in 1996 were committed by adult children, according to statistics by the National Center on Elder Abuse.

Only one in 14 cases of abuse are reported, especially when family members are involved, experts say, because elderly parents don't want to live in nursing homes and sometimes feel like a burden at home. Very few incidents are prosecuted, the experts said.

"Elder abuse is where child abuse was 20 years ago," said Suzane Tornatore, the Howard County victim assistance coordinator. "It was a family secret."

Prosecutors will have a tough case to prove, experts say: Phyllis Bray denies the charges, and like many elderly, her mother has problems with short-term memory, according to her daughter.

Howard County prosecutor I. Matthew Campbell said he understands those limitations.

"Proving the case of injury is sometimes difficult," said Campbell, a deputy state's attorney. "It's always a problem, ascertaining [the truth] from someone who is infirm."

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