Senate Eyes Ways To Protect Elderly

Citing the growing problem of abuse of the elderly, the Senate Aging Committee chairman wants criminal background checks for nursing home workers and expanded powers for the government.

"We have an obligation to protect the fastest-growing segment of the population," Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said before proposing his legislation Monday at a hearing on financial exploitation of older people.

Breaux's panel was hearing stories of a man who fell prey to a young woman who feigned a romantic interest to obtain his home and money; a woman victimized by home-improvement con men and an elderly man whose new male friend drained his bank account.

Breaux's bill is the product of an expansive investigation that found increasing and widespread abuse of the elderly and concluded that as many as four out of five such crimes have gone unreported. He credits fellow Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., for the idea about background checks.

Recent surveys indicate that well over a half-million abuse cases a year are reported to state adult protection agencies. State officials are the primary protectors of the elderly, and still would have that role under the legislation.

Breaux said part of the problem is that there is no federal worker whose full-time job is to protect seniors from abuse. "We found out no one really is in charge of this area," he said.

His plan would:

  • Create new offices in the Justice and Health and Human Services departments that would help conduct the background checks, coordinate government programs, issue reports and aid in training law enforcement.
  • Require long-term care facilities to immediately report suspected crimes to law enforcement, with fines for noncompliance ranging up to $100,000.
  • Mandate criminal background checks for all staff members in long-term care facilities.
  • Make facilities receiving federal payments give a 45-day notice to regulators before shutting down and abandoning residents.
  • Seek training of bank personnel to recognize when something is amiss in an elderly person's account.
  • Create a federal information center on elder abuse, with a Web site to educate the public.

    Studies indicate elder abuse is growing, with 41.2 million Americans aged 62 or older counted in the 2000 census.

    Joanne Otto of the National Association of Adult Protective Services Administrators said a nationwide survey by her group in 1990 found 470,000 reports of elder abuse during a one-year period.

    A survey now under way has tallied 375,000 instances over one year, with only 24 states reporting so far.

    Organizations that represent most of the nation's long-term care facilities said they would not oppose more federal regulation and specifically support criminal background checks. They said, however, they want reimbursement for any expenses.

    Jane Brady, Delaware's attorney general, said her state already has instituted some of the aging committee's proposals.

    Over the past three years, 588 people in Delaware were rejected for jobs as providers to the elderly after criminal background checks, she said.

    The state has voluntary agreements with banks that allow notification of authorities if elderly customers seem disoriented or when patterns change in use of their accounts.