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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 29, 2006

Elder abuse revisions urged

 •  Special report: Falling Prey: The Rising Financial Abuse of Hawai'i's Elderly

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

Changing essentially three words in Hawai'i law would allow the state to investigate many more cases of suspected elder abuse, broadening an adult-protection statute that is now considered the most restrictive in the country, an elder-law expert told a group of senior advocates yesterday.

Law professor James Pietsch, who heads the University of Hawai'i's Elder Law Program, recommended that the state's current law be amended to cover "vulnerable" rather than "dependent" adults, change the word "and" to "or" in key parts of the statute, and add an "elderly" component to it.

The broader law will encourage the reporting of suspected abuse cases that currently are going unreported because people believe that the state's Adult Protective Services will not pursue an investigation, Pietsch said.

Pietsch made the recommendations to the Kupuna Caucus, a group of legislators and others who advocate for senior issues. The caucus took up the issue after The Advertiser ran series in May that told of scores of suspected abuse cases going unchecked because of the law.

For the state to investigate, the suspected victim must be:

  • Dependent on someone for care because of a physical or mental impairment.

  • A victim of abuse.

  • In imminent danger of continued abuse.

    An American Bar Association elder-law expert has called Hawai'i's law the most restrictive in the country, saying it basically gives free passes to many abusers.

    Pietsch said social workers at three O'ahu hospitals recently told him they no longer bother to report suspected abuse cases in which all three conditions are unmet, believing that Adult Protective Services would take no action.

    "They're frustrated by these things," he said. "They think they're not going to get anything."

    Sandy Rongitsch, a Maui medical social worker, said she often hears the same concerns from nurses she works with and likewise heard the same thing when she worked for APS.

    Patty Johnson, a Department of Human Services administrator who oversees APS, said her agency would be open to changes in the law if that's what the community wants.

    But she said she believes that the law is well constructed and is working as the Legislature intended. She said her workers go to great lengths to investigate cases, sometimes sending APS students, who aren't bound by the statute, to check on abuse reports if all three conditions aren't met. The students always are accompanied by a supervisor.

    "We go to big efforts to try to screen in, not screen out (cases)," she said.

    Several legislators at yesterday's meeting said the changes recommended by Pietsch likely will be included in a draft bill that the caucus will continue to discuss, with the aim of adopting a final version that can be introduced at next year's legislative session.

    In addition to broadening the law to make it apply to "vulnerable" adults, Pietsch recommended replacing "and" with "or" in certain sections so an investigation can be triggered if the case meets only one of the two remaining criteria: The alleged victim already has been abused "and" is in imminent danger of further abuse.

    He also recommended that, like in a handful of other states, Hawai'i specifically add "elderly" to the protected group of people covered by the law. He suggested that any report involving an alleged victim 75 or older be automatically investigated.

    The latter recommendation is expected to be the most contentious of the three, raising concerns about age discrimination and civil liberties.

    Several seniors who attended yesterday's meeting said they support all three of Pietsch's recommendations.

    "I have no objections to stuff like that," said Fred Lee, 79.

    "His proposals are very simple," added Bruce McCullough, 73. "They make sense."

    Reach Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.