Elder abuse and neglect reports continue to rise in Sonoma County

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How to Report

Report concerns about the well-being of an adult living at home:

Adult Protective Services Hotline
800-667-0404
Available 24 hours per day. Calls are confidential.

Report concerns about an adult living in a nursing or residential care facility:

Sonoma County Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
707-526-4108 or 800-231-4024
Learn more about the Ombudsman at Senior Advocacy Services. Calls are confidential.

Richard Lawson is still recovering from a shoulder injury he received last year after a younger family member grabbed and pushed him through the front screen door of his sister’s southwest Santa Rosa home, sending him landing on his back on the wheelchair ramp.

Lawson, 73, said the family member, who he asked not to be named because he feared reprisal, was “doped up” when he came at him. Lawson’s younger brother helped subdue the relative — just long enough for a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy to haul him away.

With the help of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, Lawson and his sister got a restraining order and vacate notice, forcing the relative to leave his sister’s house.

“We went to court and got the restraining order — she got one and I got one. And she had to evict him,” Lawson said.

The Lawsons’ ordeal is just one of many forms of elder abuse and neglect being documented with greater frequency by senior advocates, medical providers and adult protection and law enforcement officials. County officials say elder abuse and neglect is a growing problem that reflects the county’s expanding senior population, as well as a greater awareness around the issue.

In Sonoma County, the total number of reported elder abuse and neglect cases grew 14 percent between 2016 and 2017, from 5,556 to 6,344 cases, according to the county’s Human Services Department.

Of last year’s cases, some 5,655 — or about 89 percent — were logged by the county’s adult protective services staff, while the rest were documented at nursing homes and residential care facilities by state-certified inspectors.

A total of 5,178 total cases were reported in 2015, compared with 4,488 cases in 2014.

Diane Kaljian, the county’s human services assistant director, said the increase reflects greater awareness about the issue and a growing willingness among community members to get involved and file reports.

“There’s more information about elder abuse and what it is and how to report it, and that there’s something that can be done about it,” Kaljian said.

Kaljian said in the past, neighbors and friends may have avoided filing a report out of fear the older adult would lose his or her independence and end up in an institution. But she said abuse and neglect can often be addressed without upending seniors’ lives.

“People need protection; they don’t necessarily need to go into institutional care to get protection,” she said, adding that abuse also occurs in senior facilities.

Despite the increase in cases, Kaljian said most elder abuse and neglect goes unreported. Studies show 1 in 23 cases are reported, she said.

With about a quarter of the county’s population over the age of 60, senior advocates are encouraging residents to notify authorities about possible abuse and neglect.

The October wildfires that caused many seniors to flee to shelters likely contributed to the uptick in reports last year, Kaljian said.

The encounters at shelters between seniors and social workers, doctors and therapists revealed many older residents were living in less than ideal and sometimes harmful conditions, she said.

“There was increase in reports in October and November,” she said. “There were so many adults in the shelters — certainly that revealed situations where people were holding on to a support system that was inadequate.”

How to Report

Report concerns about the well-being of an adult living at home:

Adult Protective Services Hotline
800-667-0404
Available 24 hours per day. Calls are confidential.

Report concerns about an adult living in a nursing or residential care facility:

Sonoma County Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
707-526-4108 or 800-231-4024
Learn more about the Ombudsman at Senior Advocacy Services. Calls are confidential.

Officials said more than half the reported cases generally are classified as neglect, either by others or self-neglect, where a senior is eating poorly, living in unsanitary conditions or receiving inadequate medical care.

Financial abuse, at 35 percent, is the next biggest category of reported cases. Those are cases where people may be using a senior’s money for their own purposes, or worse, where family members or caretakers are taking possession of a senior’s homes or assets.

About 25 percent of cases involve psychological and emotional abuse, such as intimidation. Ten percent are physical abuse cases, and one percent involve sexual abuse. Physical and sexual abuse often are flagged by physicians, nurses or other medical providers.

As part of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, more than 200 professionals who directly address elder abuse and neglect gathered at the Lodge at Sonoma on Friday for a training seminar to gain insights from local and state experts on abuse prevention. Seminar topics included investigating abuse, housing issues, dementia, hoarding behavior and specific issues related to the LGBTQ community.

Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Carla Rodriguez, who’s part of the elder protection unit, said the uptick in reported cases is in part due to greater awareness by local law enforcement officials. She said police and sheriff’s deputies responding to domestic disputes increasingly are playing the social-worker role, reporting possible cases elderly abuse or neglect.

“The police are definitely much more aware of the wide variety of possible crimes,” Rodriguez said. “They’re making a lot more referrals, which is great.”

Rodriguez said her office sees a lot of financial abuse, some contractor fraud and, to a lesser extent, cases of neglect. She said the vast majority of the cases she handles involve elders caring for adult children who have either a substance abuse disorder or mental illness.

While cases of physical abuse, such as that experienced by the Lawsons, is less common than financial abuse or neglect, legal experts said the current housing crisis is creating the potential for more abuse.

Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, said there’s a growing overlap between area housing woes and elder abuse, as more adult children or relatives are forced to move into homes owned or rented by seniors.

In one case handled by Rubinoff’s organization, a 74-year-old woman nearly lost her rental after her landlord tried to evict her for problems caused by her daughter, who was living with her. The daughter was neglecting the older woman, stealing her medications and not feeding her properly.

The mother was malnourished after not eating for four days and had to be taken to the hospital, Rubinoff said.

She said the older woman almost lost her federally subsidized housing as well.

“This is coming up over and over, where the abuse, if not stopped, will matriculate into a loss of housing,” she said.

Crista Chelemedos, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, said there is one positive thing about the continual rise in reported cases of senior abuse and neglect.

“It’s getting closer to actually reflecting the magnitude of elder abuse,” she said.

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