Senate Task Force Calls for Action to Combat State’s Growing Elder Abuse

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 30, 2019

With the 2019 General Assembly Session ending Friday, June 28, Senator Cynthia Coyne (D-District 32, Barrington, Bristol, East Providence), who led the Senate’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation, successfully spearheaded an effort to pass legislative proposals to beef up the state’s efforts to combat elder abuse, that is growing and vastly under reported.

“The prevalence and projected growth of elder abuse and exploitation is deeply troubling, particularly in light of our findings that its full extent can’t be known because it is so rarely reported or investigated,” said Coyne in a statement announcing the release of the Senate Task Force’s final report. “As the baby boomers become seniors and our elderly population grows, it’s critical that we do everything we can to protect older Rhode Islanders from this abuse. We are confident we can make significant improvements to prevent elder abuse and exploitation, and I’m grateful for the commitment of my colleagues in the Senate to this issue,” says Coyne.

The Senate Task Force, began studying the prevalence and impact of elder abuse and financial exploitation in Rhode Island last December, releasing its final report June 28, in Room 313 on the third floor of the statehouse, calling for education about elder abuse and monitoring efforts to prevent it.

Rhode Island Elder Abuse Incidents Are Increasing

The 130-page report, citing data supplied by the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs (RIDEA), warns that elder abuse and financial exploitation in the Ocean State is prevalent and incidents are increasing. According to RIDEA, “there were 1,377 confirmed cases of elder abuse in 2017, which is 444 cases more than only five years prior. As the nation’s population of people age 65 and over is expected to double by 2060, the problem is expected to continue growing. Among the recommendations is that the state collaborate with existing community organizations and support outreach and education efforts that specifically focus on seniors and those who interact with them.”

Elder abuse is underreported, too, says the Senate Task Force report, noting that “Only 1 in 23 cases of elder abuse is reported to adult protective services.“ The report recommends strengthening outreach and education efforts for the public, health care workers and others who interact with seniors, and working to dispel stigmas so seniors will be better enabled to report abuse.

The Senate Task Force report also warns that older Rhode Islanders are also extremely vulnerable to financial exploitation, caused by a multitude of factors including a senior’s health, life savings and technology now available to electronically transfer money. With this problem expected to continue growing, it calls for better education for passage of legislation similar to a Connecticut law that requires training for agencies that employ individuals to care for seniors. Another recommendation is to consider a law like one in Delaware to allow financial institutions to place a hold on accounts when they find suspicious transactions.

The Senate Task Force also recommends supporting the Saint Elizabeth Haven for Elder Justice and its enhanced Training and Services to End Abuse in Later Life grant program, and strengthening services available through the POINT, the senior resource service at the Division of Elderly Affairs.

Passed Elder Abuse Legislation Heads to Governor’s Desk for Signature

As the result of this Senate Task Force, in the final days of the General Assembly, Coyne and Rep. David A. Bennett (D-District 20, Warwick, Cranston) introduced legislation (S 0603A, H 5573) to combat tackle the issue of elder abuse in the Ocean State. The legislation, expanding an existing law that requires people who have reasonable cause to believe a person age 60 and over is being abused, neglected or mistreated to report it to the Division of Elderly Affairs, which will report the incident to law enforcement if appropriate and intervene, was passed an now heads for the Governor’s desk for signature. .

Currently, health care providers and others who come into contact with elderly or disabled people in health care facilities are required to report suspected abuse or neglect within 24 hours. The enacted law adds a section of law requiring reporting of suspected abuse, exploitation, neglect or self-neglect of people over age 60, regardless of whether they live in a health care facility. It also expands the list of those required to report suspected abuse to include physician assistants and probation officers and protects employees who report abuse from liability (unless they are found to be a perpetrator) or negative consequences at work for reporting abuse or neglect.

The Rhode Island General Assembly also passed legislation (S 0845A, H 6114) sponsored by Coyne and Rep. Patricia A. Serpa (D-District 27, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick). The legislation requires the collecting municipal probate data to access the guardianship program, as well as to seek federal grants to support education, monitoring and resources for guardians. It also recommends a nationwide criminal background check for anyone seeking guardianship or limited guardianship of another adult, even temporarily. Under the bill, anyone who is found to have been convicted or plead nolo contendere to charges for a variety of crimes, including violent crimes or crimes involving abuse or neglect of elders, would be disqualified.

Members of the task force include Senator Coyne; Senator Sandra Cano (D-District8, Pawtucket); State Long-Term Care Ombudsman Kathleen Heren; Special Assistant Attorney General Molly Kapstein Cote; Mary Ladd, chief of program development at the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs; AARP- Rhode Island Associate State Director John DiTomasso; State Police Detective Kyle Shibley; Warwick attorney Mark Heffner; and Saint Elizabeth Haven for Elder Justice Director Jeanne Gattegno.
With the release of its report this month, Coyne’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation, is off to a good start by giving the Rhode Island General Assembly a legislative road map needed to protect vulnerable Rhode Island seniors from physical, emotional and financial abuse. It’s a first step, but hopefully not the last. Senate leadership might consider making the Senate’s Special Task Force to Study Elderly Abuse and Financial Exploitation, permanent, charged with recommending legislative proposals each session, mirroring best practices, gathered from other states, to combat elder abuse.

To get a copy of the Senate Task Force’s elder abuse report, to http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/commissions/eafe/commdocs/Special%20Task%20Force%20to%20Study%20Elderly%20Abuse%20and%20Financial%20Exploitation%20REP.pdf.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.