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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Let's strengthen laws to curb elder abuse

Elder abuse is an atrocity. Without an aggressive move to curb this problem, the potential for harm to our growing population of vulnerable seniors can only increase.

The appalling stories of mistreatment and fraud affecting elders has been chronicled in a series by Advertiser writer Rob Perez. Ailments stemming from neglect, as well as suspected thefts from bank accounts, are often reported but all too frequently aren't investigated.

Sometimes the allegations concern the network of professional caregivers who work and house the elderly residents in their private homes. Sometimes complaints point to possible problems with family members caring for their own relatives.

It would be extremely difficult to achieve perfect oversight of such a scattered web of caregiving scenarios in licensed care homes and family residences. And clearly, this network provides a critical social service, filling a need that the more institutional nursing homes couldn't possibly manage alone.

But refining the laws that govern the caregiving practice would certainly help.

Under Hawai'i's far-too-restrictive statute, state Adult Protective Services can't investigate unless a senior is dependent on others for care because of a mental or physical impairment, is the victim of abuse and is in imminent danger of continued abuse.

That's an unreasonably high standard. And many cases are thus barred from investigation until someone's already been hurt.

Previous efforts by the state to revise the law have faltered on the boundary between safeguarding the elders and breaching their privacy, as well as that of their caregivers.

At hearings to consider provisions for unannounced inspections, opposition by a well-organized caregiving industry overpowered advocacy for stricter regulation. Additionally, advocates for seniors have not complained about the restrictions. Given their shortage of staff and funding, it's not hard to understand why.

Clearly this situation demands another look.

It's a complex issue, which is why community discussions should begin now, so that a reasonable slate of amendments might be prepared in time for the next legislative session.

Fortunately, state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu), chairwoman of the Senate's Human Services Committee, has taken a first step in that direction. A meeting of the Kupuna Caucus of lawmakers and advocates versed in senior concerns has been called on the issue (see box above), and the Senate Majority Office has studied how Hawai'i's law compares with those from other states.

Chun Oakland has pledged to reconsider amending the laws if enough support develops in the community so it's up to all of us to convey that support. In a state with a long history of pride in how we honor our elders, we should do no less.