The legal system doesn’t have the resources in place to stop elder abuse — that was the message that a group of panelists sent Tuesday evening.
The panel, which conducted more of a conversation than a lecture as an audience of about 20 asked questions, was held to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Almost 80 cases of elder abuse have been reported in Douglas County in the past three years, according to data from the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
In the legal system, attorney Molly Wood said, there is a gap in protection between the criminal cases, which are the most severe and funded with public money, and the civil cases that are pursued through private dollars.
“To create this illusion that there is a safety net and that all the allegations will be investigated and that the wrongdoers will be brought to justice, we don’t have near the resources,” Wood said. “We don’t have enough resources in child services, and those get higher priorities.”
SRS attorney Rebecca Gerhardt said laws for adult protective services are about 30 years behind those put in place to protect children. Part of that, Gerhardt said, is because people are more willing to accept that children need help.
“It’s much more difficult to think ‘what would I want for the law to look like when I am 70 or when I am 80,’” she said. “No one wants to think about the frail, elderly parent that needs help.”
Panelists shared stories of cases they worked that involved elder abuse. And a few in the audience asked questions about incidents they thought might indicate that elder abuse was taking place.
Elder abuse can take the form of physical and sexual abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.
Abuse can be hard to prosecute, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said. Often the victim depends on the perpetrator of the abuse to take care of them. Cases can involve victims who might not remember they were taken advantage of or don’t realize they were a victim. And much of the abuse is done in private.
Most of the time, Branson said, victims just want the abuse to stop.
He measures the success of elder abuse cases the same way he does domestic violence cases.
“Have we put things in place to make it less likely for a person to need our services in the future? If they don’t need our services in the future, then we have been successful,” Branson said.
Gerhardt urged for anyone who suspects elder abuse to report it to SRS. The number is 1-800-922-5330.