Tackling elder abuse a complex challenge
By Patty Johnson
I commend The Honolulu Advertiser editors and reporter Rob Perez for the series of articles last week calling attention to the plight of vulnerable seniors who fall victim to financial exploitation. As an administrator with the state Department of Human Services, I would like to make a few additional points about this critical issue.
When elder abuse is suspected, DHS and law enforcement agencies face challenges proving misconduct. That's because these frail victims often do not make good witnesses, and their decision-making ability can be confused by affection for the wrongdoers.
For example, if a senior establishes a joint checking account, the other person on the account can legally withdraw all its funds. Also, if a senior gives someone an ATM card and PIN number, that person can withdraw money without facing criminal penalties.
Should those actions be legal or illegal?
Clearly, the best outcome in abuse cases is to stop the exploitation, punish the wrongdoers and make restitution to the victims. Under Hawai'i law, however, the Department of Human Services can only attempt to stop the exploitation from recurring. To go beyond that, civil action or criminal prosecution is needed.
Another important point is that Hawai'i's Adult Protective Services statute is not so different from those in other states, contrary to claims that we have the most restrictive law in the country. In other states, these laws pertain to seniors who are considered "vulnerable," "incapacitated" or "impaired." In our state, we use "dependent adult," meaning the same thing.
Also, Adult Protective Services investigations are triggered in other states by the need to protect seniors because there is a threat of repeat abuse. We have the same standard in Hawai'i, in that investigations are launched to protect a vulnerable elder when further abuse or exploitation is "imminent," meaning likely to recur within 90 days.
If the Department of Human Services does not have the authority to investigate, there are many other ways to help dependent adults. Our staff actively assists concerned parties, for instance, by referring them to law enforcement authorities, court officials, private attorneys and nonprofit agencies, among others.
In addition, DHS teamed with the state attorney general in October 2003 to initiate a special unit that aids elderly victims of abuse, neglect or financial exploitation. During the project's first 30 months, 233 seniors were helped.
It also is important to understand that elder abuse investigations are highly intrusive and should not be pursued without just cause. Many people are questioned during these probes, such as family members, caregivers, clergy, neighbors, doctors and pharmacists.
Moreover, in cases of financial exploitation, people must disclose detailed information about their finances, including checking accounts, savings accounts, mortgages and so on. These are often sensitive topics that many people, including seniors, do not want to discuss with investigators.
As noted in the series, one of the best ways to prevent abuse is by increasing criminal penalties for exploiters of vulnerable seniors. At the same time, we must respect the rights of seniors who can make competent choices about their money — even if those decisions appear unwise to outsiders.
DHS welcomes a broad coalition of interested groups to review all laws — not just adult protective laws — and to recommend appropriate changes at the next legislative session. This is an important part of the Lingle-Aiona administration's long-term-living initiative.
The need to examine this issue is great, especially because Hawai'i is one of America's grayest states and the massive boomer generation is moving ever closer to retirement.
CHECKING UP ON CAREGIVERS
The Legislature just passed a bill, backed by Gov. Linda Lingle, that requires criminal background checks of people who provide care to Hawai'i's elderly in healthcare facilities.
Three years ago, legislators passed a measure allowing the state to pursue civil penalties against caregivers suspected of elder abuse.
The state has yet to successfully prosecute a caregiver using that civil penalties statute, but a case against a Kapolei facility is pending.