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February 20, 2004

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SACRAMENTO – Assemblyman Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), chair of the Select Committee on Elder Abuse, introduced an omnibus bill package today designed to combat the growing problem of elder abuse in California.

“Elder abuse is reaching crisis proportions,” said Simitian, “It’s time we strengthened our laws to protect seniors.”

AB 2611 is designed to toughen three areas of the law. First, it will require financial institutions to report suspected cases of financial abuse to local law enforcement authorities. Second, it will give prosecutors stronger tools to go after elder abusers. And third, it will strengthen seniors’ private right of action against nursing homes that have violated residents’ rights, which are part of State law.

Of these measures Simitian said, “It’s time we started holding people accountable for the abuse they commit, and the abuse they see perpetrated against our seniors.”

Financial Institutions Must Report
With the high cost of living in many California communities, financial abuse of elders is on the rise — with some counties reporting as much as a 300% increase. According to Cindy Hendrickson, deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County, financial abuse has the added misfortune that “once the money starts to move, it’s very difficult to retrieve.”

Because banks and other financial institutions are in a key position to spot and stop elder financial abuse, the bill would require them to report suspected cases of financial abuse to local law enforcement authorities, while at the same time shielding them from liability.

“Banks are smart. They can spot bad checks and stolen credit cards. They should be able to spot unusual activity in an elder’s account,” said Helen Karr, San Mateo County Commissioner on Aging. “Bringing them into the picture is one of the best ways we can stop seniors from being financially abused.”

Strengthening Prosecution
The flip side of prevention is strong prosecution. Civil prosecutors would like to see a more reasonable burden of proof requirement for parties involved in financial abuse of seniors. “The current standard of clear and convincing evidence to prove bad faith, recklessness, fraud, or malice, is unfair in many elder abuse cases,” said Denis O’Neal, Deputy County Counsel for Santa Clara County. “No one should be allowed to profit from elder abuse.” Lowering the burden of proof to preponderance of evidence in financial abuse cases would help seniors get their homes and other assets back.

To further aid seniors in the quick recovery of their homes, AB 2611 proposes to authorize county boards to approve a $2 fee on the recording of real estate instruments. These funds would go to an Elder Financial Abuse Trust Fund, which would finance an emergency response team comprised of county law enforcement and social services professionals to stop financial abuse in its tracks.

Putting Teeth Into Private Right of Action
Though seniors have had the right to sue nursing homes for the last 20 years for violation of residents’ rights, the liability limit, $500, has rendered the law toothless.

“Despite the numerous violation of rights that have taken place, we’ve had no lawsuits filed under this law for 20 years,” said Prescott Cole, senior staff Attorney at California Association for Nursing Home Reform. “No lawyer will take an elder abuse case for that amount. This has never been considered a real form of redress.”

Under the bill, current and former residents will be able to sue nursing homes for up to $5,000, instead of the current ceiling of $500, for violations that span denial of visitation to mistreatment and abuse.
“We need to give seniors a way of fighting the abuse and mistreatment that occurs unchecked on a daily basis,” said California Senior Legislator Gail Stevens of Aptos. 

Elder Abuse Report Issued
The ideas came largely from two elder abuse hearings on financial and physical abuse held in San Jose and Santa Cruz last December. The hearings included nearly six hours of testimony from panels of experts—including county Aging and Adult Services, Adult Protective Services, and Long Term Care Ombudsman representatives; local law enforcement, district attorneys and the Attorney General’s staff. Additionally, a medical expert, nursing home reform advocates, and nonprofit legal services representatives gave testimony, as well as members of the public.

“This package of bills is an important step in stemming the tide of elder abuse,” said Ellen Pirie, Chair of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and former Directing Attorney of Senior Citizens’ Legal Services. Pirie testified at the December 10th hearing in Santa Cruz.

Added San Mateo County Aging and Adult Services Director Lisa Mancini, “These proposals will help those who are on the front lines combating elder abuse every day.”