By Michael P. Ehline, Esq. – In New York City, like Los Angeles, and other cities nationwide, whether it is in the form of emotional mistreatment, physical harm, or financial scams, civil advocates for aging people who claim and file the cases of elder abuse (learn more), far outweigh 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. Prior to Thanksgiving, Zieff counseled an 88-year old woman, who had recently received an $8,000 FEMA check for storm damage, and whose daughter and adult grandchildren living with her, demanded she hand over the check to them. Counseling another client, Zieff heard about a granddaughter, who had taken a room in the woman’s house, when her basement apartment was flooded and was refusing to leave.
New York Elder Abuse Program
There are five non-profit agencies that run city funded elder abuse programs, Zieff is the elder abuse program coordinator for the Community Agency for Senior Citizens. Zieff said she discussed the situation with the 88 year old woman and said explain to her she has the right to say “no.” She said that it is the woman’s money and Zieff said they did a lot of role playing and she told the woman, if anyone asks her for money, to call her first. The Staten Island social worker then visited the womans New Dorp Beach home, where she said they were not happy to see her. She said, she told the woman’s daughter and as Zieff put it her abuser that the FEMA check was made out to her mother, and that her mother can do with the money what she wants.
Over Working The Civil Servant
According to Zieff, whether there is a storm or not, her and several coworkers are working on approximately 30 cases of elder abuse. She said that their program is the only program in Staten Island that is dedicated to assisting abused senior citizens. The social workers run into cases of physical neglect, financial exploitation, sexual abuse, domestic violence, along with 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. The funding for these programs was recently subject to cuts, even though they were once assured 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 at a time, without the help of city money. We have all heard the stories of attorneys being forced to hire their own court reporters, and the shortened work weeks 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.
Underfunding of Senior Centers
The director of public policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, Bobbie Sackman, said that the programs now receive a total of $800,000 a year in discretionary City Council funding, for approximately 300 senior centers in five boroughs. They are seriously under resourced, when looking at the size of the area that must be covered and the intensity of the cases, Sackman said.
The Crisis that is Under Reported
Social workers are operating with small staffs and modest funding, while facing rising caseloads. The social workers are conducting intensive case work, where in some instances, it means listening for hours in counseling sessions, making daily home visits, accompanying clients to court hearings, to the bank and staying in touch with other agencies, like 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 provide education in the signs of elder abuse and how to get help or make referrals.
Elderly Abuse a Public Epidemic?
Sackman says these are the professionally trained workforce, which are the eyes and ears for the city’s elder abuse problem. They are able to work with the emotional area and the practical side, in a skilled way to support the elderly and obtain the help they need. The director of 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 cover half of Manhattan. He said they manage between 40 and 50 ongoing cases and take on approximately 15 new cases every month. According to those who work with senior citizens claim that elder abuse is a hidden public health crisis. They say there is no class, or ethnic group that is immune to this type of abuse.
Zieff says that this is one of the most under reported crimes, in which approximately ninety percent of the time, it is the senior’s children who commit the crime. She said when it is your child committing the crime, it involves many issues. She said the first is denial and then the older adult does not want to say their child is stealing from them. There is the feeling of embarrassment, and the urge to protect them. In New York state in 2010 there was a study conducted on the prevalence of elder abuse conducted in part by the city’s Department for the Aging, which determined that for every elder abuse case known to the elder abuse service system, there are believed to be as many as 24 cases that 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 time period. The study found that older seniors suffered a higher rate of elder abuse at approximately 14 percent.
Likely To Increase
The number of abuse incidents is likely to rise, with the aging population living longer and the baby boomers joining the ranks of seniors. In the city, there are almost a million New Yorkers, which is approximately 12 percent of the population, who are 65 or older, with approximately 900,000 that will join that age bracket, within the next decade, from the 2010 census data.
Seniors Children as Perpetrators
According to experts the most common form of mistreatment is financial exploitation, which has only increased with the weak economy. In 2009, the case of philanthropist Brooke Astor was in the headlines, when her son was convicted of financial elder abuse of her $200 million dollar fortune, and did not provide her with adequate medical or general care. Elder abuse workers, claim they often see seniors, whose children are taking their monthly social security checks or are taking extra money, while using the parent’s ATM card.
According to Evelyn Laureano, executive director of the Neighborhood Self-Help by Older Persons Project (SHOPP), in the Bronx, a city funded elder abuse program, said the seniors that often come forward to seek help, are not doing it because of the abuse, but rather a symptom of it, such as a utility shut off notice or an impending eviction. Laureano said that the case workers are trained to look for the reason that a senior receiving $1,200 a month cannot pay their $500 dollar rent 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 said that “typical” cases can vary by borough also. According to Onaitis, historically people have been attracted to Manhattan, from all over the country, and have settled independently as adults, being single all their lives, with few friends or family outside of the area. These seniors will often find a roommate to help cut expenses and when the situation turns bad, the roommate will not leave, he said.
Beware the “New Best Friend”
Another situation is the “new best friend,” which is a person who will initially offer care, but then either takes money or becomes abusive. This is a dynamic that is often seen in many of the elder abuse cases, 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 type of care, according to case managers.
Educating Victims to Refuse to go along with Mistreatment
Laureano said that often the alleged abusers are the adult children of the senior, who have a dependent relationship on their elderly parents. Whatever the reason is, whether it is the son that is recently divorced, has a substance abuse problem, is homeless or lost his job, forcing him to move home and the elderly parent is the only one with an income. There are other cases, where mental illness is involved, like the adult child that completes a short-term stay in a psychiatric hospital, and they are discharged to their mother, and the mother is 89 years old, Laureano said in describing situations, where the fragile elderly individual has wanted protection from the child’s violent temper.
The Various Examples are Sad
Domestic violence is another issue, which involves 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 changed, for the worse two years ago. The man that she had been married to all these years was “very very kind” she said, and with this change he began shouting accusations, using profanity using very nasty words and having tirades. Vonwhervin said it would come out of the blue and she had no idea where it was coming from. Her husband was frustrated one day, because he could not find something he was looking for and punched her in the stomach.
Carolyn Vonwhervin said she felt like a lost person, and that nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Vonwhervin found SHOPP’s elder abuse Violence Intervention and Prevention program, through referrals, where social worker and program director Nereida Muñiz, assisted her in developing a safety plan. The plan was a borrowed strategy from the domestic violence programs, which included having a plan of where to go if her husband became violent and calling 911. Muñiz accompanied Vonwhervin to family court to obtain an order of protection and discussed finding safe housing, which was ultimately with her granddaughter. Vonwhervin’s husband was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, prostate cancer and dementia. Once on medication, his demeanor calmed down and she was able to return home to care for him with the help of a home health aide, until his death this month.
Eslyn Rawlings, age 71 is another person that Muñiz recently began working with, who called 311. 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 made no comment about the abuse. Rawlings said this is the first time she has spoken openly about her marriage and is delighted she is receiving help. She said that the “Lord” provided someone to listen to her, and she doesn’t feel alone. According to Zieff, the words of these women are telling, and abuse is very isolating. Social workers in these programs use supportive counseling and listen, but place a priority on physical safety; they say they work from what they refer to as “strengths perspective.” Onaitis said that clients are asked to examine what is good in their lives, what problems they are having and how they handle the situation and then they are asked how they handled these situations in the past.
They work on building self esteems, not just calling the police and having the abuser taken out, so that they can come right back in the door, he said. A large part of what these agencies provide is practical assistance. Social worker Muñiz said in the Bronx, she has been able to have senior’s bank accounts restored by the bank, when they have reviewed the ATM camera footage and seen it was not the account holder, who is an elderly customer making the withdrawals.
There is a citywide push to combat and the prevention of elder abuse. Several non-profit and government organizations in 2009, formed the New York City Elder Abuse Center, which is a network that responds and work in partnership in 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 both Brooklyn and the Bronx also have elder abuse task forces.
The City Council members for the first time were able to choose elder abuse as a topic to make educational pamphlets that they distribute to constituents. The information in the pamphlets provided an educational tone on what elder abuse is, where they could call for help and included the five city-funded agencies in the brochure. Council Member Jessica Lappin said they want people to realize that elder abuse is more common than they think, in order for 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.
Agency and Community Commitment
According to Sackman, the formation of 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, along with others have requested that the City Council make funding elder abuse programs automatic, rather than being subject to annual contracts. Sackman said, is it fair to question the commitment and the money should be in place already. Lappin said that there is no real opposition to the base-lining of funding and she would like to see the Council restore the base-lined status funding.
She said that everyone realizes how important these programs are, but there are conflicting priorities. The budget has to be balanced is an issue and a fiscal reality. She said, since 2009, the city’s Department for the Aging has seen significant budget cuts, which fell on senior citizen centers, other programs, Meals on Wheels and elder abuse work. Lappin said that with the hurricane, they saw how crucial the services are, and said that Meals on Wheels volunteers carried food up many flights of stairs to seniors, who were not normally on their routes. Funding to baseline for senior centers was restored last year, 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 large impact on the overall budget.
Zieff continues her work, currently and said they were hard-hit by hurricane Sandy. She says they believe they are going to 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 been hit by a history of taxing and spending. We have seen businesses leaving our state in droves. That is one of the reasons why there is no money left to pay for a court of record, for example. One can see there are many parallels to what is happening in New York.