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Elder abuse laws exist in all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, though numerous variations exist, including what constitutes "elder." Some states define it as age 60 and over, while other set the threshold at 65. However, most states' elder abuse laws apply to all adults, regardless of age.
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA), around 10 percent of America's senior citizens experience some form of elder abuse, but only around 20 percent of these incidents are reported each year.
There are numerous categories, or types, of elder abuse. These include:
- Neglect or abandonment
- Financial and material exploitation
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
One other category qualifying as elder abuse is self-neglect, wherein the person ceases engaging in self-care, such as regular bathing or eating. Typically, this does not result in charges but is instead considered grounds for referring the individual to adult protective services (APS).
The most common perpetrators of elder abuse are the victim's own family members or other caregivers. The NCEA believes this leads to underreporting, as victims often don't want to accuse a family member. In some cases, he or she may not realize abuse has occurred, such as when it falls under the category of financial exploitation.
What are the Elements of Elder Abuse?
Most states categorize elder abuse as assault, even when no physical harm occurs. As in child abuse, penalties for elder abuse are typically more severe, as the intention is protecting society's most vulnerable citizens.
Factors the court considers in an elder abuse case include the victim's condition prior to the abuse, where the abuse occurred, the degree of force or neglect, and the extent of damages the victim sustained.
An elder abuse charge requires providing proof of the victim's age, that either neglect or a harmful act occurred, and that the victim suffered as a result of that neglect or act.
Neglect, also known as omission, includes failure to provide medical care, adequate food, and/or assistance with hygiene. However, a charge of elder abuse by omission must include proof that the accused was legally responsible for the care of the victim.
Harmful acts include intentional and unintentional assault, as well as financial or material fraud and exploitation. In this case, the charge must prove that harm occurred, but not that the perpetrator was legally responsible for the victim.
Finally, the state must prove causation, which is a direct link between the defendant's behavior and the victim's injury.
The Penalties for Elder Abuse
Elder abuse penalties vary according to the state and whether the offense is categorized as a misdemeanor or a felony. In addition, the courts look at mitigating and aggravating factors.
In Alabama, penalties for a misdemeanor conviction include fines up to $6,000 and up to 12 months in county jail. A felony conviction carries a maximum sentence of 4 years in jail. However, aggravating factors may increase penalties. These include:
- If the victim sustains great bodily harm, or the accused could reasonably expect that the victim would suffer great bodily harm
- If the victim dies due to the abuse, the court adds an additional 5 years to the sentence for a victim under 70, and an additional 7 years for a victim over 70
In Arizona, elder abuse is classified as "vulnerable adult abuse" and encompasses any person over the age of 18 unable to protect him- or herself from abuse, neglect, or exploitation. Arizona categorizes intentional or knowing abuse as a class 2 felony, reckless abuse as a class 3 felony, and criminal negligence as a class 4 felony. Penalties include:
- Class 2 felony: a minimum prison sentence of 10 years for a first offense, 21 years for a second offense, and life in prison for a third offense
- Class 3 felony: either probation plus up to one year in jail OR up to 12.5 years in jail for a first offense, depending on mitigating and aggravating factors
- Class 4 felony: either probation plus up to one year in jail OR up to 3.75 years in jail, depending on mitigating and aggravating factors
In addition to criminal penalties, you may also face civil penalties, if the victim's relatives decide to file suit. For example, if the victim dies, his or her heirs may file suit to recover damages, including pain and suffering.
Schedule a Free Consultation
If you face elder abuse charges, schedule a free consultation with a criminal defense attorney, preferably one experienced in elder abuse law.