Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ageism, Elder Abuse and Social Justice

It’s not surprising that Paul Kleyman would take offense at a “Close to Home” cartoon that ran in a recent edition of the Washington Post. In it, an elderly bald man is reading a tabloid called Aging Today, which has a wrinkled, swimsuit-clad elderly woman on its cover under the banner "1st annual swimsuit edition.” The cartoon’s caption is “A dark day in publishing.”

Paul is editor of the real Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging and takes a firm stand against ageism. In a letter to the editor (from Paul to Paul)that appears in the latest issue, he points out that the term "ageism" first appeared in the Post in the early 1960s in a profile of Robert Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Aging, written by the young reporter Carl Bernstein. Paul adds that the International Longevity Center USA (ILC-USA), which Butler directs, recently released a new report, “Ageism in America.”

Elder abuse is one of seven categories of ageism that the ILC-USA report addresses. It suggests that ageist attitudes are what compel some to rip off, neglect, or harm the elderly. It also gives examples of institutional ageism with respect to elder abuse, which includes the glaring inequities in public funding for protective services to children versus elders.

Butler and his colleagues make a convincing case. Still, there’s something troubling to me about blaming ageism for elder abuse, which, in essence, casts elder abuse as a social justice issue along with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that are responsible for oppressing, discriminating against and marginalizing others. After all, the ranks of the elderly include society’s most privileged members.

If we’re going to embrace elder abuse as a social justice issue, we should start by taking an honest look at our field’s track record. Although our research consistently shows that communities of color are disproportionately affected by elder abuse, it’s an issue that’s rarely discussed. We know that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to experience financial abuse, and that elderly African-American and Hispanic women are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. Social and economic factors that heighten risk are also more prevalent in communities of color, includng poverty, which may contribute to or be mistaken for neglect and self neglect. In 2003, 8.8% of elderly whites lived in poverty, compared to 23.7% of elderly African-Americans and 19.5% of elderly Hispanics, and older women are much more likely to be poor than men (12.5% compared to 7.3%). Nearly 41% of elderly Hispanic women who lived alone were poor. Heightened demands on African-American and Indian caregivers, exacerbated by multigenerational caregiving, lack of resources, urban migration and other factors, also contribute to risk. Clearly, reducing poverty and offering adequate support to underserved groups can lower the risk of elder abuse and neglect.

The truth is that in this country at least, we’ve shied away from addressing elder abuse as a social justice issue. Late-life domestic violence programs have downplayed the fact that the domestic violence movement was driven by the women’s movement, which attributed domestic violence to discrimination and women’s subordinate status in society. In calling for an improved criminal justice system response, we’ve failed to acknowledge the historical injustices that make many minority elders wary of the system.

Destpite its title, the Elder Justice Act has little to say about justice. In sharp contrast, the World Assembly on Aging, in a 2002 report, cast the mistreatment of older persons within the broader landscape of “poverty, structural inequalities and human rights violations,” and further acknowledged that women were disproportionately affected.

If we’re going to frame elder abuse as a social justice issue, let’s be consistent and demand social justice and equal protection for all elders. Simply calling for parity with other age groups and more flattering media portrayals just isn't enough.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Walmart Benefits from Restitution Reform

The other day, I was updating a handout I use for presentations on financial abuse and decided to check up on a project I list in the "Best Practices” section. It's a program created to revamp Vermont’s restitution recovery system, which got started after a 2001 state auditor's report revealed that only 13 cents of every dollar owed for restitution had been collected during the previous year.

The way the program works is that rather than funneling monthly payments directly from criminals to victims, victims are paid what they're owed from a fund generated by a 15% surcharge on criminal and traffic court fines. The Vermont Center for Crime Victims Services assumes the debt and collects from offenders.

The program is innovative in a couple ways. Trained professionals, rather than individual victims, are the ones tracking down perps' assets, hopefully resulting in improved recovery rates. Also, victims don’t need to wait months or years to collect; they’re paid, up to $10,000, immediately after sentencing. The approach is also fairer. Traditionally, the victims most likely to collect restitution are those who have the resources to hire lawyers.

Although the program is considered a success, the program's founders soon realized that thousands in payouts (almost 20% of the fund) had gone to big businesses including Wal-Mart, Rite Aid and Banknorth. Clearly, businesses, especially small ones, are impacted by crime, but the Vermont program was created to help ordinary people, not publicly traded multinational corporations. In response, they went back to the state Legislature, and successfully got a new bill passed to clarify the fund's intent.

More on restitution:
In January 2005 the GAO released a report, "Criminal Debt: Court Ordered Restitution Amounts Far Exceed Likely Collections For the Crime Victims in Selected Financial Fraud Cases," which reviewed five federal financial crime cases. Only 7% of the ordered restitution had been paid despite the fact that the defendants had reported significant wealth or assets prior to their judgments. The report also includes recommendations for better enforcement of restitution, which includes encouraging prosecutors to place more pressure on offenders to pay off restitution and fines prior to sentencing as part of plea agreements. They also suggest that asset forfeiture measures be taken earlier in investigations. The report is available at

For more on approaches states have used to improve their restitution systems, see the excellent Office for Victims of Crime publication Making Restitution Work, Legal Series Bulletin #5.

Other approaches that made my “Best Practice” list are:

Dakota County, Minnesota’s probation department allows probationers to pay off restitution by doing community service. They work for minimum wage, and the county pays victims from a restitution fund.

South Carolina allows probationers to pay off unpaid supervision fees with community service. Offenders are supposed to pay a $40 fee each time they meet with probation officers.