PA group takes first steps to protect seniors

Statewide reforms to improve protections and justice for older Pennsylvanians are in the works.

A state Supreme Court committee is examining the proposed expansion of a rule that allows the courts to preserve testimony of victims who might not be available to testify if a case languishes in the system.

The rule may be expanded to include victims whose age or illness, like dementia, might make it impossible for them to have their day in court.

The committee is also weighing the value of adding a box to a standardized arrest form that would indicate whether the victim is elderly, which could help to expedite those cases.

The state House Committee on Aging and Older Adult Services is considering a number of proposals that would enhance the safety net for seniors, including one that would mandate banks to report suspected financial exploitation of the elderly.

Another would establish a registry of people against whom allegations of elder abuse have been substantiated, to prevent known abusers from getting jobs where they would be alone with seniors.

Amendments to the Older Adults Protective Services Act could be sent to the House for consideration by fall, said Rep. Tim Hennessey, the Republican committee chairman representing Chester and Montgomery counties.

Much of the action is being driven by an advisory council that was formed about six months ago to implement recommendations made by the Supreme Court’s Elder Law Task Force.

Pennsylvania, with more than two million seniors, has the fourth largest percentage of elderly in the country. As the population ages, they become more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and the court system becomes more difficult to navigate.

PA population by age
Chart taken from the Elder Law Task Force report released Nov. 17, 2014.

“It certainly presents issues that are unique to the court system,” said Superior Court Judge Paula Francisco Ott, who leads the advisory council. “We need to be certain that we address those issues ... in a manner that recognizes some of their limitations that have come with age and that we’re sensitive to them.”

The Advisory Council on Elder Justice in the Courts, mostly composed of judges, lawyers and senior advocates, began meeting shortly after the task force delivered its 130 recommendations in November.

The council has been identifying the most practical suggestions that can be implemented at little to no cost in order to make swift progress.

The group also formed a subcommittee on funding to analyze the costs of other initiatives and to identify potential funding sources.

“All these issues always come down to a funding discussion, and we don’t know where we are on [the state’s] overall general funds budget, so it’s a little difficult to say we’ll have money available for anything that the council wants to recommend,” Hennessey said.

Homeless at 90

When Karen Buck, executive director of the SeniorLAW Center in Philadelphia, thinks of why she has contributed time to the council’s work, she remembers a 90-year-old World War II veteran in Pennsylvania who was financially exploited.

He had been a relatively affluent and healthy man, but the turmoil left him homeless and frail.

To make matters worse, Buck said there were several delays to the trial. “The defendant was trying to live him out,” she said.

Buck said this situation is exactly why the rules on preserving testimony need to be expanded and encouraged in court proceedings involving seniors.

A requirement for banks to report suspected abuse or exploitation could also save seniors before they find themselves in this veteran’s situation.

View the full Elder Law Task Force report here:

Council members Hennessey and Ronald Costen, an attorney with Temple University’s Institute on Protective Services, said banking industry officials have resisted the designation as mandatory reporters because of the potential liability if bank employees were to fail to monitor and report.

But both men insisted that it was an important step to protect older adults. “You need to look at the records of older adults in real time, when the abuse or theft is occurring, so you can slow it down or stop it,” Costen said.

Maryland passed a law in 2012 requiring banks and credit unions to report suspicions of financial exploitation for people 65 and older. If they fail to report it within 24 hours, the banks face penalties of up to $5,000.

Test runs

The council is also keeping tabs on two pilot programs that could eventually serve as models in the state and possibly the nation.

In Philadelphia County, council member President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper has launched a pilot elder court in recent months. She said the court is collecting data on older victims and observing what accessibility problems they have, such as whether they can see and hear in the courtroom.

They are also training judges and lawyers to provide additional support services and considering how to prioritize cases involving seniors without violating due process for others.

“We’re discovering we do have some resources already available for elders, but we need to coordinate them so people are aware of them and help elders access them,” Woods-Skipper said.

A pilot guardian training program in York County has also yielded some valuable lessons in what families and professionals need to know before they take on the financial and personal decisions of an elderly or disabled person who is deemed incapacitated.

“We want to make certain they understand the scope of responsibilities, including filing reports,” Ott said. “We need to know whether they’re not filing because they don’t understand the process or because they’re not paying attention to the incapacitated person.”

Ott said they would like to develop a video tutorial to show to guardians.

Anyone who suspects elder abuse may call the following hotlines anonymously:

  • Statewide Elder Abuse Hotline: 1-800-490-8505
  • Office of Attorney General Elder Abuse Hotline: 1-866-623-2137

Many of the task force suggestions focused on regulating court-appointed guardianships. The task force said the state should require criminal background, firearms and credit checks of guardians, and increased monitoring of the reports guardians must file.

These matters have not yet been addressed, but the council has focused on a life-changing moment for some seniors. When a judge determines an elder is incapacitated, they must surrender nearly all rights to another person.

To ensure the judge has the appropriate information to make that call, the council has developed a standardized form for healthcare providers to fill out for the courts. For the form to be used statewide, it needs to be approved by a Supreme Court rules committee, which is currently reviewing it.

Raising awareness

Education and training is a priority of the council, said council member President Judge George Zanic of Huntingdon County.

In the coming months, he said the council will be making presentations to judges, clerks of court, prosecutors, law enforcement and protective services groups.

They are raising awareness about a variety of strategies to protect seniors, like how to effectively notify elders about scams and encouraging prosecutors to freeze assets in financial exploitation cases to make restitution more likely.

“We have to strike a balance between protecting our seniors and protecting their independence,” Zanic said. “This topic is not simple at all. It is overwhelming because it covers so many areas, and I don’t think any one person is an expert on all of elder justice.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or at hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.