Elder Abuse

What is Elder Abuse?

Abuse may be physical, mental, emotional, or sexual. Neglect can be self-neglect or neglect by a caregiver. A caregiver may be a family member, an in-home paid worker, a staff person of a program such as an adult day care center or of a facility such as a nursing home, or another person. Exploitation means that a person in a position of trust knowingly, by deception and intimidation, obtains and uses or tries to obtain and use a vulnerable person’s funds, assets, or property. This includes failure to use the vulnerable person’s income and assets to provide for the necessities required for that person’s care.

Groups most at risk for elder abuse include:

  • Older women are most commonly reported. Older men may be just as much or even more at risk but are less frequently reported.
  • The higher the age, the greater the risk.
  • Those who live with a caregiver or depend on someone for care and assistance.
  • Physically frail or disabled.
  • Confused, disoriented, or mentally impaired.

Individual characteristics include:

  • Very loyal to the caregiver. Willing to accept blame.
  • Socially isolated and history of poor relationship with caregiver.
  • Alcohol, medication, or drug abuse.
  • Has illness that causes behavior that is stressful for caregiver (verbal outbursts, incontinence, wandering, agitation).
  • Displays behavior that provokes caregiver (ungrateful, overly-demanding, unpleasant).

The more of the following observable indicators are present, the greater the risk:

  • Physical indicators such as bruises, burns, unexplained fractures, bedsores, being dirty and unkempt, inadequate clothing, showing evidence of malnutrition.
  • Behavioral indicators such as being nervous or agitated, avoiding eye contract, hesitant to talk openly, depressed or despairing, feeling hopeless, withdrawn, denying problems, covering up for caregiver, confused or disoriented, suspicious.
  • Environmental indicators such as dirty, cramped, unsanitary living space with inadequate light, heat, or cooling; health and safety hazards such as doors with no locks, rodents or insects, open space heaters, broken plumbing, no water or electricity, fire hazards, repairs needed to roof, stairs, railing; and questionable care as evidenced by lack of food, medicine not managed, soiled bedding, or patient is restrained.

Reporting Elder Abuse

Florida Law requires that any person who knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that a vulnerable adult has been or is being abused, neglected, or exploited shall immediately report such knowledge or suspicion to the Florida Abuse Hotline on the toll-free telephone number, 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873). The TDD (Telephone Device for the Deaf) number for reporting adult abuse is 1-800-955-8770. Vulnerable adults are persons eighteen and over (including senior adults sixty and over) who, because of their age or disability, may be unable to adequately provide for their own care or protection. The Florida Abuse Hotline accepts calls 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The Abuse Hotline counselor is required to let the person calling know whether the information provided has been accepted as a report for investigation.

When you call the Abuse Hotline to make a report, have this information ready:

  • Victim’s name, address or location, approximate age, race, and sex.
  • A brief description of the adult victim’s disability or infirmity.
  • Signs or indications of harm or injury, including a physical description if possible.
  • Name, address, and telephone number of any possibly responsible person/ perpetrator.
  • Relationship of the possibly responsible person/perpetrator to the victim, if possible. If the relationship is unknown, a report may still meet requirements for investigation.
  • As the reporter, your name, address, and telephone number. This information is never given out. The reporter may choose to remain anonymous.

The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is responsible for providing services to detect and correct abuse, neglect, and exploitation of adults. This must be done so as to place the fewest possible restrictions on personal liberty and constitutional rights. In other words, DCF cannot forcibly remove a competent adult from a situation he or she refuses to leave. Some elders are unwilling to leave an abusive situation or to press charges against family members. Only if the person is found to be mentally impaired enough that judgment and decision making are impaired can the worker intervene to protect the person against his or her will. Law enforcement takes the lead in all criminal investigations and prosecutions for abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a vulnerable adult by another person.

Risk of Abuse by Caregivers

Many times the abuser is a family member who is providing unpaid care to the vulnerable person.

A caregiver is more at risk of being an abuser if he or she:

  • Has personal problems such as alcohol or medication abuse, mental or emotional illness, physical health problems, or low self-esteem.
  • Was abused as a child, grew up in a household where violence was used to resolve disputes, or has a history of conflict with the older person.
  • Is experiencing stresses such as marital conflict, unemployment, economic problems, lack of activities outside the home, or caring for both parents and children.
  • Lacks experience and skills as a caregiver, does not understand the older person’s disease, has little support from other family members, or has unrealistic expectations for being a caregiver.

Observable factors that could indicate that abuse by a caregiver is happening include:

  • Not letting the older person speak for himself/herself or have a conversation without the caregiver present.
  • Family members blaming the older person for being a burden or perceiving symptoms of a disease as intentional behavior.
  • Conflicting accounts of an incident by family members and the victim.
  • Caregiver is financially dependent on the older person.
  • Older person lives in overcrowded environment with caregiver and is socially isolated outside the family.

Some of the risk factors for abuse by caregivers can be changed through caregiver education and support. The Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. (AAAPP) offers a caregiver program, but caregivers most in need of this help may be the ones least likely to hear about and accept assistance. It is up to all of us to inform caregivers we know and to encourage them to ask for support to preserve their own health and allow them to provide care longer with less risk of abuse or neglect.

The National Family Caregiver Support Program, serves caregivers of persons sixty and over and provides services such as respite care, counseling, and chore services. Grandparents 55 and over caring for children eighteen and younger are eligible for support services. This program is available in other areas of Florida and the U.S. For referral statewide call the toll-free state Elder Helpline number, 1-800-963-5337. Nationally, use the Eldercare Locator’s toll-free number, 1-800-677-1116 or use the Eldercare Locator web site, www.eldercare.gov.

For information on how to prevent caregiver burnout that can lead to abuse if there is no relief, see The Four Stages of Caregiving, Stage Three, section 1. Recognize and prevent caregiver burnout. For ways to cool down immediately and the numbers of several crisis counseling or prayer lines available 24 hours a day that is described in The Four Stages of Caregiving, click here

There are additional resources to help victims of spouse abuse.

  • If you are in immediate physical danger, call 9-1-1 for the police.
  • Community Action Stops Abuse (CASA). This organization is located in St. Petersburg, Florida and serves southern Pinellas County. CASA provides a 24-hour crisis line, 727-895-4912. CASA also provides support, advocacy, safety planning, shelter, etc. For more information about CASA, visit the CASA web site, www.casa-stpete.org.
  • The Haven of RCS is located in Clearwater and provides safety, support, and education for victims of domestic violence in northern Pinellas County. For those in immediate danger, The Haven offers a 24 hour Safe House where victims and their children can reside in safety. The Haven of RCS can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 727-442-4128. (TTY is 727-446-2149.) For more information visit the RCS website at www.rcspinellas.org. For callers outside the area, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and you will be connected to a domestic violence program in your area.
  • Florida Domestic Violence Hotline. Call toll-free 1-800-500-1119.

For more help call The Helpline
serving Pasco and Pinellas Counties
Calling from outside the area: 727-217-8111

Additional information on Elder Abuse can be found on the United States Department of Justice Elder Justice Website, a resource for victims of elder abuse and financial exploitation and their families; practitioners who serve them; law enforcement agencies and prosecutors; and researchers seeking to understand and address this silent epidemic plaguing our nation’s elders. Victims and family members will find information about how to report elder abuse and financial exploitation in all 50 states and the territories.

Little Horatio: Canine Victim
Working to Prevent Elder Abuse

Abused Pasco dog taken in by a victim advocate now pays it forward

News story chronicles the contribution of Little Horatio in preventing elder abuse. By Erin Sullivan, Times Staff Writer, In Print: Saturday, January 23, 2010.

Little Horatio is a Catahoula Leopard dog that was rescued in 2005 from an abusive house, where the owner’s son beat the 81-year-old and her dog. The beatings damaged the dog’s eyes, so he wears protective goggles, called “Doggles.” On a morning in September 2005, an 81-year-old woman walked into a restaurant and told the owner she didn’t want to live anymore. She was hysterical, weeping, shaking. The 4 foot 9, 100-pound woman walked nearly a mile from her house to the restaurant in Holiday. She said her son beat her and her dog all the time. He used the dog to control her, threatening to kick him if she didn’t give him what he wanted. That morning, she said he slapped her about the head to get her to sell her house, so he could have the money. “I can’t live like this anymore,” she said, according to records. The restaurant owner called the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and a deputy arrested the son. The woman went to a hospital until her other sons took her up north.

But her dog couldn’t go with her. Kathy Cornwell, one of two victim advocates who came to the house to check on the woman, ended up taking the 2-year-old Catahoula Leopard home with her. He was big, 60-something pounds with white with brown spots and splotches, but he trembled. She and the dog were in her bedroom when her husband came home. At the sight of a strange man, the dog leapt onto the bed and laid his body across Cornwell. Later, after Cornwell talked with the victim, she learned the dog always tried to protect her from her son, covering her body to absorb the blows.

It took more than a year for the dog to get used to life without fear. He had never been socialized. Rarely went outside. He flinched at men. He still gets nervous when he is away from Cornwell, 63, who works with victims for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. He won’t eat until she comes home from work. As a result of the beatings, he had permanent nerve damage in his eyes. He had an indent as big as half a baseball on his head. He wears goggles when he is outside because his pupils can’t dilate. After therapy, the depression on his head reduced, but it’s still there. Cornwell said she believes his sweet-natured temperament saved him from the abuser. “If he had tried to fight back, he would have suffered much worse,” she said.

The son – whom the Times is not naming to protect the victim – was convicted of scheme to defraud for forcing money from his mother and served six months in jail. The domestic battery charges were dropped because of the mother’s mental state, but the son is now serving a four-year prison term for an unrelated charge of aggravated stalking. Cornwell keeps in touch with the victim and her other sons. She is now in a nursing home. When therapy dogs come to visit, she says, “I have one of those.” She hasn’t forgotten her dog. In public, Cornwell calls the dog Little Horatio, in a nod to Shakespeare. He’s not little. He’s gained weight from treats and muscle from running around Cornwell’s 5 acres with her other dog. He still sleeps in the bed every night and he’s fine with her husband being there now. Cornwell takes him to visit hospice patients as a therapy dog. His other title is Pasco County’s “four-legged victim’s advocate.” She and Jane Occhiolini, 67, the victim advocate who was there the day she got Little Horatio, take him to forums on abuse. Abuse can be a scary topic for people. Little Horatio helps them connect.

“He gives them hope,” Cornwell said. “This dog has gone through so much. And look at how happy he is. He’s not stuck in the past. “It shows people that it’s hard, but you can move on.” Cornwell said Little Horatio is one of many animals who have suffered domestic abuse. She said abusers often threaten to hurt pets to control their victims. She remembered a case where one person killed a puppy every time the victim disobeyed. There were several puppy graves in the back yard. Or another case where the abuser slaughtered the family dog and had his victim clean up the mess. Cornwell said there are foster families in Pasco who can care for pets if a victim decides to leave an abusive situation and no pets are allowed at the shelter. Cornwell said Little Horatio gives her hope every day when she comes home from work, after hours of wading into the terrible things people do to each other. If he can be happy, so can she.

“To me,” she said, “he’s my hero.”

Kathy C ad Little Horatio: Canine Victim Working to Prevent Elder Abuse


Fast facts

For information about the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas Inc., call 1-800-963-5337.

If you are a victim of abuse, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873.) There are programs that can help you get shelter, money and counseling. To obtain information about these programs or to request a presentation with Little Horatio about domestic violence, call Kathy Cornwell at (727) 861-5233.

If you are interested in being a foster family for abused pets, call Pasco Animal Services at (727) 834-3216 or (813) 929-1212 or (352) 521-5194.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

For full story see:http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/abused-pasco-dog-

Florida-Elder Abuse Brochure.pdf

Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation – Public education presentation by the Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA) in conjuction with the Department of Children and Families (DCF)- ANE_Public_Education_Session.pdf

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