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California Detects Deep Flaws In Responding to Elder Abuse and Neglect

California Detects Deep Flaws In Responding to Elder Abuse and Neglect

There are deep flaws in California’s approach to detecting and responding to elder abuse and neglect – flaws that prevent serious cases from ever coming to light, according to a new report from the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.

California has more than 9,000 nursing and residential care facilities for the elderly and 290,000 licensed beds, according to federal statistics. Riding herd on them are about 1,000 “long-term care ombudsmen” – people originally meant to be watchdog/mediators, doing spot checks of facilities, following up on complaints, and helping make life better for residents by serving as intermediates, and advocates, with management.

But something else has happened entirely, according to the report.

Because of laws California has adopted, these watchdog/mediators have morphed into the front line for investigating serious reports of elder abuse and neglect. That gives rise to several problems – the least of which may be that there’s no time for the routine spot checks and patient advocacy that was originally envisioned.

Elder Abuse Ombudsmen have Evolved into Watchdogs

Ombudsmen – now legally tasked with very serious investigations of suspected abuse and neglect – can only tell law enforcement about problems if the complaining parties agree to release their names and complaints.

Only one-quarter agree to this. Which means 75 percent of complaints essentially disappear.

What precisely are we talking about here? Assault, sexual harassment, financial exploitation, physical neglect …. grim stuff.

Why won’t people sign their names to complaints? Well, if you had to keep living in the place you were complaining about – or have your most basic and intimate needs attended to by someone you were complaining about – you might be a bit frightened of attaching your name to the complaint, too.

And in cases where suspected abuse is reported by staff – on behalf of a resident with dementia or the like – well, that person can’t give informed consent.

The ombudsmen program had a budget of $5.7 million in 2009, almost 27 percent below where it was in 2007-08, the report says. Not surprisingly, that has corresponded to a tremendous drop in the number of abuse cases ombudsmen recommend for follow-up to law enforcement.

This being a report by the Senate majority – which happens to be Democratic – it blasts the budget cuts imposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But those budget cuts did not cause these problems, so much as lay them bare.

So, what can be done to protect California’s vulnerable seniors?

Sacramento should pass legislation “to enhance the ability of the ombudsman to act as an independent voice for the elderly, as required under the Older Americans Act, and require the state ombudsman’s office to develop a comprehensive plan of advocacy,” the report says.

Privacy Protection is Key to Successful Reporting

Residents, their family members and staffers should be able to report abuse, and get action, without fear of being exposed. To that end, the Legislature should require the state ombudsman’s office “to develop a detailed protocol for reporting elder abuse even without resident consent if the situation poses an imminent threat to long-term care residents or others.”

Ombudsmen should be able to return to their watchdog/advocate role, and leave investigation of possible crimes to the likes of local Adult Protective Services offices and law enforcement.

Ombudsmen volunteers – and yes, there are many of them – should not be tasked with undertaking such serious investigations, at least not without more training.

In 2004, 12 percent of Americans were over age 65. By 2050, that figure will grow to 21 percent , the U.S. Census Bureau says. These issues will only get more and more acute.

“The last thing we should do is handcuff those who we entrust to watch over the care and safety of our elderly loved ones with conflicting and ill-conceived mandates, confusing protocol, and inadequate regulations,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) in a prepared statement. “The Senate will take a close look at the thoughtful recommendations provided in this report and respond appropriately.”

– from Steven Peck, Senior Attorney at Peck Law Group

Nursing Home Abuse & Neglect Attorney Steven Peck

About the Author

Attorney Steven Peck has been practicing law since 1981. A former successful business owner, Mr. Peck initially focused his legal career on business law. Within the first three years, after some colleagues and friend’s parents endured nursing home neglect and elder abuse, he continued his education to begin practicing elder law and nursing home abuse law.

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