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Combating Elder Abuse in Indian Country

A column by Robert Barton on the problem of elder abuse in Indian country.

America's population is aging quickly. In 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 13 percent of Americans were 65 or older. By 2030, estimates are that demographic will exceed 20%.

Among Native Americans, the number of American Indian and Alaska Native elders will more than double by 2030, with trends indicating those 65 or older will total 15 percent in 2030, up from 7 percent in 2010.

Amidst this backdrop, a troubling narrative is emerging. Our elders are under attack, often by the very people who should be caring for them. Unfortunately, Native American elders are no safer than their elderly non-Indian neighbors. It is time for tribal, state, and national leaders to break from the complacency of the past and deal with this issue head-on.

The term "elder abuse" generally encompasses abuse committed against the elderly in a variety of forms, including physical and/or emotional abuse, financial exploitation or neglect. In a recent study, 1 in 13 seniors reported some form of mistreatment in the past year. One in 25 seniors were a victim of financial abuse, and one in 50 were the victims of physical abuse. An astounding 90% of elder abuse was committed by family members. Unfortunately, these numbers only scratch the surface of the problem. Because of love for (or fear of) family members and the prospect of shame or isolation, many victims feel hesitant to come forward and confront their abusers. For these and other reasons, experts estimate only 1 in 57 cases are reported.

What these figures mean for Indian country is not yet known. Based on statistics for other crimes, it can reasonably be assumed that incidents of elder abuse are more common in tribal communities than the general population, but past efforts to identify the extent of the problem in Indian country have been inconclusive. In 2004, the National Indian Council on Aging released its report titled "Preventing and Responding to Abuse of Elders in Indian Country." The report lamented the lack of research, effective tribal codes and funding to address the problem. In 2005, the Administration on Aging released its report, "Elder Abuse Issues in Indian Country." This report also recognized the lack of research and funding for combating elder abuse. Unfortunately, despite the reports and their recommendations, little progress appears to have been made.

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So what can tribal communities do to protect our elders? After all, many tribal cultures understand themselves to venerate their elders, holding them in high esteem and giving them great honor. You would think that respect for elders should be an effective inoculation against abuse of elders. Unfortunately, that is not always the case and the first step for prevention must be taken within tribal communities. Tribal, political, and cultural leaders must begin to research and document the extent of the problem of elder abuse. Tribal citizens must communicate clearly and loudly to their tribal, state, and national leaders that the protection of our elders is a top priority.

Tribes, through our health and community service providers, can improve education and awareness among those who have regular interaction with the elder community in an effort to improve the detection, deterrence and treatment of elder abuse. Local law enforcement must be trained to recognize and investigate suspected cases of elder abuse. Existing tribal codes should be evaluated to determine whether they sufficiently reflect the tribe's values in protecting elders and whether elder abuse is defined as a crime. Punishments to deter future conduct can be established, or if punishments are already provided, these punishments can be evaluated for their effectiveness in deterring future conduct. Tribes may also wish to offer their elders legal and financial advice resources for retirement planning in order to limit the types of situations where financial elder abuse can take place.

Finally, tribal, state, and national leaders can take steps to make it known that funding the prevention and treatment of elder abuse is a priority. In August 2011, the Administration on Aging within the Department of Health and Human Services announced grant funding specifically targeting the issue of elder abuse in Indian country. However, these grants totaled less than $750,000 for a population that currently exceeds well over 200,000 elders. While an encouraging step, this limited funding is not enough to give our elders the protection they deserve. Meaningful and effective program funding will not appear on its own, and tribal leaders and tribal communities must continue to push, as a national priority, for the resources necessary to treat this growing problem.

Potential solutions to identify, mitigate, and treat the problem of elder abuse abound. But only by laying the proper foundation of education, treatment, and enforcement now will we be able to prevent the abuse and neglect of seniors from irreparably damaging our communities in the future.

Robert Barton is an attorney in the Los Angeles office of Holland & Knight LLP where his practice focuses on complex trust and estate litigation, conservatorship and guardianship matters, and elder abuse matters. He is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.