Abuse of Parents by Adolescents

Abuse of Parents by Adolescents

Abuse of Parents by Adolescents
Abuse of Parents by Adolescents

When teenagers batter their parents, the fathers and mothers tend to feel ashamed and usually wish to keep the matter private, so severe underreporting confounds attempts to estimate the scope of the problem. In many cases, the use of force directed at parents can be seen as retaliation for the violence these caretakers previously visited upon their chil- dren. In that sense, an intergenerational cycle of violence has been set into motion.

Mothers and stepmothers are more likely to be injured than fathers or stepfathers. But male parents are more likely to be the targets of extreme violence, perhaps as revenge for previous abuse or in self- defense as the attack escalates. Physically aggressive fathers with drinking problems are the most com- mon victims of severe injuries or even lethal force by sons who view themselves as protectors of their mothers and siblings. In the rare cases in which a daughter is involved in the murder of a parent, the actual killer is usually a male she recruited to carry out the deed (see Steinmetz, 1978b; Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz, 1980; Lubenow, 1983; Pagelow, 1989; Mones, 1991; and Ewing, 1997).

Elder Abuse

A very popular actor is at the height of his career in 1940. Over the decades, he has trouble managing his money and private life. But he appears in more than 70 movies and regains his fortune. In 2011, he

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testifies before a congressional committee on aging that he was being subjected to elder abuse by his stepson (who was managing his financial affairs) and his stepson’s wife. He tells the senators, “…my daily life became unbearable. I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless.” He files a lawsuit alleging that the couple stole his money for their own enjoyment, kept him in the dark about his own finances, threatened and verbally abused him, and refused to provide him with basic necessities, including food and medicine. He wins a judgment against them and then dies shortly afterward at the age of 93. (Gjertsen, 2014)

In general, victimization rates for elderly persons are lower than for persons in younger age groups. People over age 65 make up about 20 percent of the population (age 12 or older) but they comprised only 2 percent of all victims of interpersonal vio- lence. Therefore, older persons enjoy dispropor- tionately low risks of getting hurt physically. Between 1994 and 2013, their victimization rate for crimes of violence dropped by over 40 percent, from 7.4 to just 4.4 casualties (many were not really injured physically) for every 1,000 older persons per year. Murders of senior citizens dropped by almost 45 percent, from 3.7 homicides per 100,000 in 1993 down to 2.1 in 2011. Their property crime victimization rate fell even more dramatically (almost 50 percent) during those two decades from 141 down to 74 per 1,000 households per year, according to NCVS data (Morgan, 2014). Elderly people are the least likely of any age group to become victims of violence and household crimes, largely because of the precautions they take (BJS, 1994a; and Klaus, 1999b).

But starting in the 1970s, victimologists and advocates for senior citizens began to delve into other ways that older people are made to suffer by younger people. As a result, elder abuse was rediscovered as another expression of conflict within families, along with child abuse and spouse abuse. Once the term was coined, the problem began to receive the attention it merited from geri- atric social workers, care providers, and law enforcement professionals, as well as researchers

(see Goldsmith and Goldsmith, 1976; Boston, 1977; Center, 1980; Hochstedler, 1981; Quinn and Tomita, 1986; Breckman and Adelman, 1988; and Steinmetz, 1988).

To begin to address this rediscovered prob- lem, Congress passed the Older Americans Act in 1965 and Title VII: Vulnerable Elder Rights Pro- tection Activity in 1992. In 2010, the Elder Justice Act was approved as part of a larger health reform package, but it was not adequately funded to sponsor its research and evaluation agenda. The federal government also set up an Administration on Aging that is responsible for developing effec- tive policies to reduce elder abuse. All 50 state legislatures have passed laws that require manda- tory reporting of cases of suspected abuse as a step toward improving the detection, prosecution, and prevention of elder abuse (Fryling, 2009). Just as child abuse allegations are investigated by local child protective services agencies, suspected cases of elder abuse are looked into by adult protective services agencies. These agencies are usually part of state health and human service departments and bridge the gap between social service organizations and the criminal justice system. Adult protective service investigators can respond to medical, psy- chiatric, and financial crises by seeking an order of protection, contesting guardianship, or filing crim- inal charges—but the elderly person retains the right to refuse these possible interventions (Kosloski, 2009).

Definitions of elder abuse vary but usually include both acts of commission (physical assaults, unwanted sexual contacts, unreasonable confine- ment, and/or financial exploitation in the form of outright theft, extortion, fraud, embezzlement, or misuse of income or savings) as well as acts of omis- sion (complete abandonment or failure to provide medical care, food, clothing, and shelter; failure to protect from health and safety hazards; and failure to assist with personal hygiene) by caretakers responsible for the older person’s well-being. Therefore, abuse is equivalent to maltreatment and encompasses gross neglect as well as acts of intentional harm (House Subcommittee, 1992; and CDC, 2011a).


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Domestic elder abuse can be perpetrated by people who provide care to older people who live at home. The offender is most commonly a close relative, especially a grown child, spouse, or sibling. Less often, the abuser is a son- or daughter-in-law, grandchild, niece, nephew, friend, or neighbor. The typical target is a frail, ailing woman more than 70 years old. In most cases, the elder and the abuser live in the same household in social isolation from friends, neighbors, and kin who might other- wise informally deter the wrongdoing. The abusers usually are overburdened caregivers who become depressed and hostile at the long-term prospects of tending to a mentally and physically impaired and dependent individual. When homebound par- ents are physically beaten or financially exploited, sons are the most likely culprits. When daughters and daughters-in-law are abusive, their maltreat- ment usually takes the form of emotional and phys- ical neglect. Mistreatment by home health aides is also suspected to be common (Pagelow, 1989).

Institutional elder abuse is committed by non- relatives, such as employees of nursing homes, who have a contractual obligation to tend to the needs of older people (McGrath and Osborne, 1989; and Orel, 2010). Allegations of physical and even sexual abuse against the residents of nursing homes across the United States are not promptly reported or acted upon, and arrests and prosecutions are rare. Nursing home operators, fellow staff members, and relatives of the victim have self-serving reasons to be reluctant to bring charges about abusive employees to the attention of authorities (Pear, 2002; and Orel, 2010).

The odds of being abused are determined by a combination of individual, relationship, commu- nity, and societal factors. Older people who face the greatest risks are burdened by mental illness and physical frailties that make them highly depen- dent. The caregivers they count upon are more likely to abuse them if these younger persons har- bor high levels of hostility, are poorly trained, were compelled to assume responsibilities at a relatively early age, have inadequate coping skills, lack social support, and were mistreated themselves when they were growing up (CDC, 2011c). Elderly females

are at greater risk than their male counterparts, peo- ple 80 or older are especially vulnerable, and the perpetrators are most often spouses or grown chil- dren. Male perpetrators are most likely to abuse elders financially, emotionally, and physically. Females are more likely to neglect their elders (Fryling, 2009).

As with child abuse and intimate partner abuse, elder maltreatment is difficult to establish and accu- rately measure. A National Elder Abuse Incidence Study estimated that nearly 450,000 adults over 59 were abused or neglected in domestic settings (not counting institutions like nursing homes) in 1996. As for prevalence, between 1 and 2 million Americans aged 65 or older have been exploited, injured, or mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection. That translates to a frequency of from 2 percent to 10 percent of all senior citizens (National Center on Elder Abuse, 2005).

Maximalists could argue that the known cases are only the tip of the iceberg because of severe underreporting. Congressional investigators esti- mated that only about 16 percent of abused elders dared to bring their plight to the attention of the proper authorities (House Subcommittee, 1992).

Minimalists could argue that some overly broad definitions overstate the problem because they may include people as young as 60 or even 50, not 65, as “elders”; some cases supported by evidence are civil matters but do not reach the threshold of criminal acts; and many reports of abuse are not proven. Only about 20 percent of the abusive situations that were brought to the attention of adult protective service agencies in the mid-1990s were substantiated (National Center on Elder Abuse, 2005).

Many reasons explain the reluctance of victims to complain about their predicaments. The offender is most likely a family member who is depended upon for daily care. Abused elders might see their situations as cause for shame or as private family matters. Some might feel they provoked the abuse; others may not even be aware of the wrongdoing—particularly finan- cial exploitation. Mandatory reporting laws similar to those that require disclosure of suspected child abuse have been imposed on health care professionals, espe- cially doctors, generating upwardly spiraling statistics

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and overwhelming caseloads for geriatric social work- ers. However, as in child abuse cases, many allegations are not thoroughly investigated and wind up classified as unsubstantiated (Wolf and Pillemer, 1989; Editors, New York Times, 1991; and Tatara, 1993).

Investigation, arrest, and prosecution are important strategies, but they only address part of the problem. Abusers need to be educated about how to care for the elderly, and victims need social services and medical assistance. Since the Bureau of the Census predicts the population of Americans older than 65 will grow dramatically by 2030 as baby boomers reach and exceed retirement age, it is likely that the problem will intensify in coming years. The U.S. Administration on Aging has set up a national clearinghouse of information about the many ways the nation’s elders may suffer physical, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse (National Center on Elder Abuse, 2011).

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