Wednesday, January 24, 2007

NIJ Funds Study on Financial Abuse

The National Institute of Justice recently awarded a 2-year, $300,000 grant to University of Virginia law professor Thomas Hafemeister and psychiatry professor Shelly Jackson to study financial elder abuse in Virginia. Hafemeister, whose “Financial Abuse of the Elderly in Domestic Settings” appeared as an appendix in the National Research Council’s Elder Mistreatment: Abuse Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America, is also the director of legal studies at UV’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy.

Working with the state’s APS program, investigators will interview elders who have recently been victimized, their caseworkers, and their caregivers about what happened and why, the state’s response, and how effective those interviewed thought the response was. The study aims to shed light on how financial exploitation compares to other forms of abuse and to get different parties’ perspectives on cases. Interviewers will include students from the law school and grad students in psychology and counseling.

Thanks to Readers for the Following:

Special thanks to researcher Ola Barnett for her detailed and thoughtful response to my January 7, 07 post, The "De-feminization" of domestic violence and what it means for elder abuse. Ola is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Psychology at Pepperdine University and the co-author of Sage Publication’s Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction. To read it, use the “blog archive” on the right to retrieve the original post and scroll down to comments.

Thanks too to Elizabeth Podnieks, Assistant Professor of English at Ryerson University, for alerting me to the July-August bulletin of the International Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA), which describes the first World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. Events ranged from balloon races in the UK, to quilt-making in Canada, to wearing white socks in South Africa. The bulletin describes other events in Uganda, Sweden, Gambia, Nigeria, Israel, Albania, Korea, Ireland, India, and Cameroon, which included theatrical performances, proclamations, and educational events. The bulletin is on INPEA’s website at

And to Laura Ivkovich, Program Specialist for the Office for Victims of Crime who alerted me to the “Enhanced Training and Services to End Violence and Abuse of Women Later in Life Program. The application deadline is February 7, 2007. For more information, see

And to Joan Allen, coordinator of the Ventura County Financial Abuse Specialist Team, for sending "Fighting Financial Fraud," a new video the team produced with funding from the Archstone Foundation. Four scenarios are presented in which elders fall prey to identity theft, an investment scam, a door-to-door sales scam, and telemarketing fraud. In each case, victims are given a “second chance”; the scenes are replayed and the victims avoid abuse by taking simple precautions. The CD is available for viewing at

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The “De-feminization” of Domestic Violence and What it Means for Elder Abuse

In 1994, the San Francisco Consortium got a grant from the Administration on Aging to develop services for older battered women. I was delighted. A few years earlier, I’d collaborated with the Family Violence Prevention Fund on a series of talks on elder domestic violence for aging and DV service providers. Since nobody knew much about the subject then, my co-trainer from FVPF talked about DV for half an hour, and I talked about elder abuse for the other half. It was in the car on the way home that we tried to figure out the connections.

Amazing things happened. Once, I heard that a woman who worked at an agency we’d just presented to had refused to attend. Afterwards, others approached her to ask why. As they’d expected, she was a victim herself, terrified, and unready to deal with it. The short story is that with their help, she relocated and got a job with a sister agency in another city, all in a matter of weeks. When I called my co-trainer from FVPF to tell her the news, her response was, “Yeah, we get that a lot.”

Since our field was struggling to understand why so many clients refuse help, I was tremendously impressed by her insights into why battered women do what they do, when they do it, and why. Grounded in feminist ideology, traditional DV theory blames deeply-rooted, gender-based inequalities and discrimination for why men batter and get away with. It recognizes the intense cultural, psychological, and economic forces that trap women in violent relationships. And, that violence doesn’t occur randomly; it follows predictable patterns, which, when understood, suggest ways to help.

Once we got the AoA grant, we pulled together an advisory committee of reps from the DV and elder abuse networks. At our first meeting, we tried to come up with a working definition of DV. Someone proposed one that was commonly used at the time: “An escalating pattern of violence by men against their intimate partners to gain power and control.”

Immediately, the elder abuse folks wanted to tinker. “But adult children abuse their parents, and it happens in the home, which makes it “domestic,” they argued. “And it’s often related to financial abuse so we should include that too.” Things heated up quickly, and I imagined the project going belly up. The deadlock was eventually broken when we started talking about cases, (incidentally, I've always found this to be an effective antidote to turfism). Other AoA-funded projects were having similar struggles with varying resolutions. One project, for example, included abuse by male offspring but only if it met the other DV criteria.

Today, we wouldn’t be having the same debate. Definitions of DV have changed radically over the years for several reasons. As DV programs reached out to women of color, they met resistance from many who argued that while sexism plays a role in family violence, other social injustices do too. The Sacred Circle National Resource Center, for example, emphasizes the role of colonization and the disruption of family life in family violence among Indians. Duluth’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Project changed its definition, conceding that “all forms of institutionalized oppression, including racism, classism, heterosexism, and ageism increase the vulnerability of women…” Gay and lesbian advocates challenged traditional gender-based theory by exposing violence among same-sex intimate partners.

The elder abuse network has contributed to this “de-feminization” of DV. Much of the literature on elder DV cites prevalence studies showing that spousal abuse is the most common form of elder abuse. The same studies show that men are at somewhat greater risk. What they don’t explain is that these studies include dementia-related violence, which is clearly not DV.

More recently, men’s advocacy groups have claimed that men get abused too, by women, with some claiming that men are at equal or even greater risk. Critics argue that most of these studies use the same research tool, which has serious limitations. For example, it leaves out important forms of violence, including sexual assault, stalking, and intimidation, and fails to differentiate between offensive and defensive acts. Still, these groups have gained traction. They have initiated lawsuits claiming unlawful gender discrimination by DV programs that don’t serve men, and a 2005 amendment to the Violence Against Women Act specifies that “any grants or other activities for assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault or trafficking in persons shall be construed to cover both male and female victims.”

All of these pressures and challenges have obscured the definition of DV to the point that many prominent groups have abandoned the term altogether, replacing it with "intimate partner violence," "violence against women," "late-life domestic abuse," and other terms that are equally obscure. I find this lack of clarity troubling since DV laws like mandatory arrest and no-drop policies are powerful tools that should only be used for the purposes they were intended for, empowering the disempowered.

While nobody would argue that men are abused by women and deserve protection, the whole point of the DV movement was that radical reforms were needed to counteract historical injustices that rendered the tradition system ineffective. Clearly, those who have not experienced these injustices don’t need special protections. Many believe that the "battered men’s movement" has less to do with a genuine concern for male victims and more with political agendas regarding family courts and other anti-feminist concerns (some men's advocacy groups were originally formed to address issues like child custody). This backlash threatens what are already over-extended resources for battered women.

The elder abuse network is divided when it comes to the role of gender and other societal forces in elder DV (and elder abuse in general). Some have criticized us for being “gender neutral,” and others have called for discussion about the cumulative effects of gender, age, race, and class in raising older women’s vulnerability.

Others reject feminist and social justice analyses altogether. Much of the mainstream literature on older battered women is devoid of any references to feminism, gender, or social justice. I believe that’s a mistake. To assume that these factors don't affect risk or victims’ ability to protect themselves, assuming instead that abuse is only about interpersonal conflict, is myopic and does a disservice to the elderly women we serve. Not to mention compromising hard won battles fought by our colleagues in DV.

The DV movement is in a state of flux. In addition to the backlash from men, there is debate within the field. Victim dissatisfaction with criminal justice responses and such problems as the escalating number of women being arrested as co-combatants, which I’ve talked about in earlier posts, have led some to suggest that greater attention to other approaches is needed, including helping abused women attain financial self-sufficiency.

There has been little debate or discussion within our field about any of these issues or even about what we mean by the term “elder domestic violence.” I believe there should be. How things shake down in the DV world, and where we stand in relation to it, will have significant repercussions for those we serve.

I'd welcome your comments.