This article is part of a weeklong series looking back at the first year of Donald Trump's presidency.
The past year has been a legislative trash fire. Congress has been deadlocked, with delays and dissension marking even basic governing duties. The Republican majority passed just one of its key legislative priorities, an unpopular and dysfunctional tax bill, just before the end of 2017, and is now in the middle of negotiating a spending bill to prevent a federal government shutdown. Yet in the midst of this chaos and dysfunction, on October 18, Congress passed at least one big bipartisan bill, the Elder Abuse Prevention and Protection Act (EAPPA).
The EAPPA was proof that Congress can still get things done, at least some of the time. And though it didn’t get much in the way of media attention, it’s a bona fide achievement. According to Bob Blancato, a prominent anti-elder abuse and neglect activist, this “was the most significant elder justice legislation since the passage of the Elder Justice Act in 2010,” the first law to authorize federal funding to address elder abuse.
The EAPPA was a priority for the Obama administration in its final days, noted Ronald Acierno, a professor of nursing who studies elder abuse and justice, and its co-sponsors in the Senate (Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Chuck Grassley) did their best to get the word out about it. So the fact that its passage attracted almost no media attention may seem odd. But as Julie Schoen of the National Center on Elder Abuse put it, “With all that’s been going on in the media and the administration, maybe people just haven’t seen this as a priority.”
Priority or not, the bill was a direct reaction to growing awareness of a major issue. Every year, by some estimates, scammers, caretakers, or even their own children bilk about 1.5 million older Americans out of their cash, to the tune of $2.9 billion—and that’s probably a low estimate. A portion of the bill was named after one such victim, Robert Matava, a decorated WWII veteran from Blumenthal’s state of Connecticut whose son defrauded him and left him penniless; he died in 2011 at age 90, and his son was apparently never brought to justice. Other elderly Americans are subject to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, endangerment, or neglect.
“I’ve been involved in prosecuting these crimes for over 22 years, and all I’ve seen is a steady increase,” said Paul Greenwood, an elder abuse specialist at the San Diego district attorney’s office and leading elder justice prosecutor. “There are a lot of reasons: the demographics, that we’ve done a better job of identifying this as a crime, and, thankfully, that we do have more trained law enforcement” tracking down and reporting these crimes, at least in some places.
The EAPPA addresses this issue through a range of provisions. Most notably, it installs elder justice coordinators in the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and every federal judicial district, and orders the creation of tools and allocation of more resources for training to assist officials at all levels in tackling elder abuse. It also calls for more and better data collection on elder abuse, opens up access to old funding pools to help the victims of these crimes, and increases the penalties for certain types of financial fraud against the elderly. Finally, it orders reviews of existing elder justice programs at the federal level and the development of further policy recommendations, among other minor provisions.
Schoen, however, thinks that explicit funding allocations should have been attached to the bill. Underfunding has been a chronic issue for the implementation of recent elder justice bills. The Elder Justice Act of 2010 has still only been partially funded to date, though Blancato points out that that may be in part because it was passed within the Affordable Care Act and has suffered the stigma and conservative backlashes that followed.
Still, elements of the bill can come to fruition without fresh funding allocations, argues Blancato. Many agencies have already started to appoint elder justice coordinators by tapping members of their existing staff. These new coordinators may potentially bring a newfound focus to elder justice issues. “It’s finally going to allow federal prosecutors to become more aware of the problem and reach out,” said Greenwood, “and for county and district prosecutors to reach out to each other as well and organize how they can work together.”
And with just a little funding, data collection can get underway. If harmonized with new or existing state and local data collection, this could be a big win. “This has been a striking need for a very long time,” said elder law attorney Sally Hurme. “We really can’t talk the way we should be able to talk about the prevalence of all forms of elder abuse if we don’t have better numbers.”
While this is a significant piece of legislation, Greenwood thinks there’s still a lot to be done. “I don’t think you’ll see an increase in everyday elder abuse cases,” he said. “Even though they will reallocate someone to become the point person, that person won’t be able to take regular cases that are popping up all over the place,” like caretakers stealing checks out of their elder charges’ mail. The feds, he added, can only allocate manpower and resources to go after massive fraud operations.
To truly improve prosecutions, Greenwood and Hurme agree, the government needs to allocate significantly more funds to Adult Protective Services (APS), the people who first investigate cases of possible elder abuse. Greenwood notes that around the country he often finds localities with only a tenth of the funds for their APS as they have for Child Protective Services; he’d like to see the nation move to parity funding. Hurme adds that she hopes local and state prosecutors working on these issues can be funded on par with those investigating major white-collar crime.
Despite a few provisions that could be applied to all forms of abuse, the language of the bill also focuses on financial abuse, with little mention of similarly prevalent physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or neglect. “It’s the one element of elder abuse that you can get your arms around; it’s the one that gets reported,” explained Blancato. “There is not as much information, knowledge, or understanding of the other forms of elder abuse as there should be.”
Blancato hopes that the new focus and data following this bill will prompt new legislation that will address other forms of abuse more explicitly and better fund the ground troops responding to these cases at the state and local level. “I’ve been around this town long enough to know that if you have data, then it can drive dollars,” he said of the DC budget process.
There’s reason to believe that Congress would be reactive to new data stemming from the EAPPA as well. As Schoen points out, protecting the elderly from abuse is something everyone can get behind regardless of party, and Congress is eager for the sweet relief of an easy bipartisan lift these days. Greenwood trusts that the senators behind this bill will be eager to follow up on it. And, Blancato adds, the current administration may pick up on this as a law and order issue it’s willing to throw weight behind.
Legislators had “better find the money, otherwise this is going to become one of the biggest social and criminal problems of the next decade,” said Greenwood.
Clearly, the EAPPA isn’t earth-shaking. Like most of what comes out of Congress now, it’s flawed and limited. But it takes a real crack at a serious issue and lays groundwork for future bipartisan action. It’s a reasonable and meaningful bill, and that’s not nothing in this Congress.
As Hurme put it, “I’m glad to see that at least we got this much.”
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