Legal Ramifications of Elder Abuse

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Each year, hundreds of thousands of older persons are abused, neglected, and exploited. Known as elder abuse, the term refers to any knowing, intentional, or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult. Oftentimes, these victims are older, frail, and vulnerable individuals who cannot help themselves and depend on others to meet their most basic needs.

Elder abuse can leave permanent physical, emotional or financial scars on older adults who may lose their health, fortunes or lives due to the inaction or actions of family members, friends, caregivers, predators or “trusted others.”

What are the legal ramifications of elder abuse?

Legislatures in all 50 states have passed some form of elder abuse prevention laws – which are both criminal and civil in nature. The definitions of terms may vary considerably from one state to another, but broadly defined, abuse may be:

  • Physical, sexual or emotional abuse
  • Neglect
  • Exploitation
  • Abandonment
  • Self-neglect

In many instances, elder abuse is a crime.  Pursuant to a particular state’s criminal or penal code, individuals may be arrested, charged and convicted for a wide variety of illegal acts related to elder abuse. Many of these laws protect the general population, regardless of the victim’s age. For example, criminal laws related to murder, assault, battery, rape or sexual assault do in fact protect older adults even though they may not be specifically mentioned in the language of the code section.

 

Why do specific criminal laws exist?

Many older adults are more susceptible to abuse due to isolation, diminished capacity, senility, mobility restrictions or dementia. Low household income, poor health, unemployment or retirement, prior traumatic events, and lack of social support all can indicate a higher likelihood that older adults may experience mistreatment.

States have responded to this by enacting criminal laws to protect older victims in these circumstances. 

In California, for example, there are criminal laws that specifically address financial abuse involving older adults. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, financial abuse or exploitation is defined as the illegal or improper use of an elder's funds, property, or assets.

Examples of financial abuse include:

  • Cashing an elderly person's checks without authorization or permission
  • Forging an older person's signature
  • Misusing or stealing an older person's money or possessions
  • Coercing or deceiving an older person into signing any document (e.g., contracts or will)
  • The improper use of conservatorship, guardianship, or power of attorney

Crimes of theft or embezzlement, when targeting an elder adult, have been made specific crimes under the California Penal Code. There are even separate codes for perpetrators who are caretakers and non-caretakers.

How can elder persons protect themselves from elder abuse?

Restraining orders are often used to protect an older adult from ongoing elder abuse and prevent abuse from occurring in the future. In general, restraining orders offer a variety of protections that can require the restrained party to stay away, not contact and not abuse the protected party. A restraining order can be issued by both civil and criminal courts.

In many states, there are different types of restraining orders that may protect someone from elder abuse:

  • Elder Abuse Restraining Order - In California, to qualify for protection under a civil Elder Abuse Restraining Order, the adult must be 65 years or older and be a victim of elder abuse. For purposes of the restraining order, the type of elder abuse alleged must be one or more of the following:  physical, financial, verbal, sexual, neglect, abandonment, abduction, isolation, or caregiver deprivation.  The person to be restrained can be anyone, including strangers, caregivers, friends or family members.  If someone doesn’t qualify for an Elder Abuse Restraining Order, there may by other restraining order options.
     
  • Domestic Violence Restraining Orders – To provide protection for individuals who allege domestic violence and who have some type of relationship with the person to be restrained. Qualifying relationships include family members; current or former intimate partners; or parents with a child in common.
     
  • Criminal Restraining Orders - In a criminal action against an individual for elder abuse, a Criminal Restraining Order (sometimes called a protective order) may be issued to protect the victim in the crime. 

What qualifies as a civil lawsuit?

A civil lawsuit is another potential legal ramification arising out of allegations of elder abuse. Depending on the circumstances, these lawsuits may allege fraud, elder abuse or even wrongful death. If the individual filing the lawsuit prevails, they may be entitled to financial relief such money damages or attorneys fees.

Regardless of the type of abuse being inflicted, it’s important to get help immediately. If you feel you or someone you know may be a victim of elder abuse, please contact Laura’s House at (866) 498-1511. 

Adam Dodge, legal director at Laura’s House, provides support and education to victims of abuse who are seeking information, guidance and assistance with the restraining order process and any related issues. Laura’s House, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to change the social beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate abuse, offers legal services – in addition to emergency shelter and community resources – in English and Spanish to victims of domestic violence and elder abuse.

For more information on the Laura’s House Legal Department, visit: www.laurashouse.org/legal-services. Contact Laura’s House at (949) 361-3775 ext. 311 or adodge@laurashouse.org.

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