Commentary: New law protects victims of violence at every age

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Photo by Fran Urbano with Flickr Creative Commons License

By Tovah Kasdin and Guila Franklin Siegel

For MarylandReporter.com

An older woman who is suffering from dementia and severe mobility impairments is referred to a specialized safe shelter for older adults. She just has been discharged from a hospital, where she was treated for severe injuries inflicted by her adult son —who also acts as her caretaker. The shelter helps her obtain a protective order so that her abusive adult child can no longer harm her.

Unbelievably, though, when this victim of abuse is admitted to the shelter, her son — the very person whose abuse led to her need for medical care and protection — is listed as having the power of attorney for her, allowing him to make medical and financial decisions on her behalf. In this horrific situation, under Maryland’s previous laws, even a protective order would not prevent an abuser from retaining the ability to make health care decisions for the parent he continuously and savagely abused.

Fortunately, Maryland’s state legislators recognized the peril of allowing abusers to make such decisions for their victims. Under legislation sponsored by Del. Shelly Hettleman and Sen. Delores Kelley and signed into law by Gov. Larry Hogan on May 25, an individual in Maryland is now prohibited from serving as a health care agent for a patient if that individual is the subject of a protective order for that patient, or if that individual is the spouse of a patient who has a separation agreement or has filed for divorce.

The legislation is another step forward in protecting all victims of domestic and family violence at every age, especially those most vulnerable, from being continually controlled and potentially further harmed by their abusers.

Washington-Baltimore coalition

Our organizations, the ElderSAFE™ Center at Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, both helped champion this bill under the leadership of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, the Women’s Law Center, with support from SARC (The Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center).

We were inspired by a social worker Melodie Keenan at the Levindale facility in Baltimore, which also shelters elder abuse clients with the Stop Abuse of Elders (SAFE) program. She grappled many times with the heartbreaking dilemma of choosing between protecting her clients and obeying a flawed state law, and took it upon herself to try to find a solution.

For ElderSAFE, this new law is crucial in helping protect victims of elder neglect and abuse — physical, sexual, psychological and financial. Our mission is to provide safe temporary shelter to adults experiencing elder abuse, to coordinate assistance for these individuals, and to increase public awareness of a problem that too often is hidden behind closed doors or not recognized by family, friends and medical professionals. For every instance where a crime of elder abuse is reported to authorities, 23 similar crimes go unreported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Roadmap Report.

Advocacy against domestic violence

For Jewish Community Relations Council, this effort reflects our mission to protect the most vulnerable among us, and to advocate on behalf of victims of domestic violence of all ages. JCRC has long supported and partnered with the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse and, in the past several years, the ElderSAFE Center, which specifically focuses on older adults.

We are pleased to have brought both organizations’ sterling work to the attention of lawmakers, and to secure state and county funding for their services, which benefit residents of all faiths throughout the greater Washington area.

But our support for ElderSAFE’s and JCADA’s missions goes well beyond ensuring that they can keep their lights on and serve their clients. Combating domestic and family violence means advocating for public policies that go the extra mile in shielding domestic violence victims in ways most of us can’t even imagine.

Thanks to the new law, abusers will no longer have the ability to control their victims’ health care decisions — a sound public policy that seems so obviously warranted, yet was years in the making. We applaud Del. Hettleman and Sen, Kelley for taking the lead on this legislation, and we extend our thanks to Gov. Hogan for signing the bill into law.

Ultimately, one important gauge of a just society is how it treats its elders. As the overall population continues to age, and people live longer with debilitating physical and cognitive conditions such as dementia, the risk of exploitation and maltreatment of seniors will likely continue to increase.

We must continue our collective efforts to bring the hidden, inhumane crime of elder abuse into the light, to ensure that Maryland leads the way in creating a safer society for our most vulnerable senior citizens.

Tovah Kasdin is director of the ElderSAFE Center at Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville; Guila Franklin Siegel is associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, and a member of the ElderSAFE Advisory Council.