Elderly Protection Teams Work to Stop Abuse

While more than 30 tribal governments across the country have implemented elder abuse codes, some Indian communities and concerned citizens have taken a more proactive role to ensure these laws are enforced.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council started the first Elderly Protection Team in Indian country 25 years ago. The team, which devised the tribe’s elderly abuse ordinance with the help of an attorney, has the responsibility and legal authority to investigate reports of elder abuse and provide protective services to those in need. 

The team’s primary focus is to prevent financial abuse of the elderly—the most commonly reported form of abuse, according to the 2005 report “Elder Abuse in Indian Country” by the Administration of Aging.

John Red Bear, Lakota, has served as the director of Standing Rock’s Elderly Protection Team for the past 14 years. He can attest elders are financially exploited far too often. Sometimes the elderly will readily give away money they cannot afford to spare to family members, and sometimes the elder is pressured. In either case, the elder may be left without heat, food or electricity. Whatever the situation, if the elderly needs help, the protection team steps in and takes over the elder’s financial affairs.

“We established a payee program,” Red Bear told Indian Country Today Media Network. Elders subjected to financial abuse “become a client. We pay their bills for them, whatever the balance, and if there is a balance, they get a small stipend or food card. That has worked really well.”

The Standing Rock Indian Reservation is home to about 400 elders, and almost 200 are enrolled in the team’s protection program. Almost half of those are enrolled simply because they need help managing their money.

Many Native communities have taken notice of Standing Rock’s effective Elderly Protection Team, which has advised at least five other tribes—Spirit Lake, Cheyenne River, the Three Affiliated Tribes, Fort Peck and Sisseton—on starting their own teams and drafting elder abuse codes.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe formed an Elderly Protection Team in 1999. George Eagle Chasing, Lakota, chairman of the team for nearly six years and the legal assistant for the Cheyenne River Housing Authority, said the staff guides families in decision-making and taking on care-giving roles.

“We try to get the family to come up with a family care plan,” Eagle Chasing explained.

But sometimes the department has to intervene. “Whether it is physical, financial or mental abuse, when individuals are not able to care for themselves, and family members can’t take care of those duties, that is when we come in,” Eagle Chasing said.

Determining when abuse is taking place can be challenging. “Almost nine times out of 10, the victimized will protect the abusers,” Eagle Chasing said. “It’s usually their children that are the abuser, and when it comes down to it, we rarely get a conviction, because they won’t testify against their child.” Typically the complaint comes from another family member or the victim, he added. When a case does make it to court, the victim often drops it, opting for mediation, he said.

Incorporating cultural and spiritual aspects into family counseling can be beneficial, explained Diane Garreau, Lakota, director of the Cheyenne River Indian Child Welfare Act agency in Eagle Butte, South Dakota. Garreau was involved in the early stages of creating Elderly Protection Team forms used to prepare a case plan.

“You can be creative with the teams,” she suggested. “You can bring in the spiritual and cultural pieces if you choose to. We have come so far from our traditions, and this can be healing and in the best interest of families.”

Red Bear agreed that elders tend to open up in familiar environments. “A lot of times, they are more comfortable with their original language,” he said. “We converse in their homes, [where] they can express themselves better.”

While Elderly Protection Teams are not a new concept among Indian nations, especially in South Dakota, several tribal members on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are in the initial phases of forming the tribe’s first team. On January 3, Percy White Plume and Julia Goings, both Lakota, organized a “Gathering of Lakota Elders” at Prairie Winds Casino to discuss updating the tribe’s elder abuse ordinance as well as developing Elderly Protection Teams.

White Plume said he wants to build a team in each district, assuring that all elderly, including those who cannot easily travel, will be reached and looked after.

Goings hopes the elders will come together to revise the code. Upcoming meetings will take place the first Thursday of each month through June.

Birgil Kills Straight, a Lakota elder who spoke at the recent meeting, reminded the small crowd that elders are sacred. “A significant part of the wealth of any indigenous nation is largely determined by the deep regard and respect that the people carry for their elders,” he said.