Issues that directly affect the elderly such as elder abuse and neglect are not new in the United States. However, these offenses are a growing concern as the older population increases. In California alone, the Stanford Center of Longevity predicts people aged over 65 will reach 8.4 million in 2030.
Unfortunately, many elder abuse acts in California and across the country are committed by trusted individuals and institutions, like family or nursing home staff. Furthermore, senior citizens are often vulnerable to such offensive acts and may be unaware of how to report them.
The good news is that California is a pioneer in protecting seniors against abuse. The state has enacted the California Elder Abuse Law, a combination of criminal and civil statutes, to ensure abusers will be held accountable.
If you have an elderly loved one whom you know or suspect to be a victim of elder abuse, taking appropriate legal action according to these elder abuse laws can help you keep them safe and claim the compensation they deserve.
But before delving into the legislation further, it helps to start with the basics.
What Qualifies As Elder Abuse in California?
According to the CDC, elder abuse is “the intentional act or failure to act that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.” There are different forms of abuse you must watch out for to protect a senior loved one.
What Are the 7 Types of Elder Abuse?
Elder abuse can fall under any of these types:
As the name suggests, this refers to the use of force to inflict unjustifiable pain or injury on an elderly person. Obvious signs include cuts, scrapes, bruises, burns, fractures, head injuries as well as fear, anxiety, withdrawal, and other signs of trauma.
With that said, other signs pointing to possible physical abuse include:
- A series of hospitalization for similar injuries
- Caregivers keeping you from being alone with the older adult
- Caregivers demanding plenty of advance notice before your visits
The National Center on Elder Abuse defines this type of abuse as “the infliction of anguish, pain, or distress through verbal or nonverbal acts.” It includes verbal assaults, infantilizing behavior, gaslighting, threats, ridicule, and harassment.
While signs of emotional abuse can be harder to spot than visible indicators like wounds and broken bones, here’s what you can watch for:
- Emotional changes (e.g., fear, anxiety, depression, or agitation)
- Being non-communicative or non-responsive
- Excessive apologizing
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
Sexual elder abuse is the forced sexual contact with an older adult, usually those with cognitive disabilities preventing them from giving consent, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Some warning signs to watch out for are:
- Unexplained vaginal or anal bleeding
- Bruised genitals, breasts, or inner thighs
- New sexually transmitted infections
- Reluctance to bathe or use the bathroom
- Aggression, sexually inappropriate behavior, and other similar changes in personality
Elder Neglect and Endangerment
Neglect is a common type of elder abuse and happens when an individual responsible for caring for a senior refuses or fails to provide the elderly person with food, water, shelter, medication, comfort, shelter, and other necessities.
Signs of elder neglect can include:
- Unexplained weight loss, malnutrition, and dehydration
- Unkempt appearance (e.g., long fingernails or toenails, poor personal hygiene, unclean clothing)
- Untreated injuries and unattended health problems
- Unsanitary and unsafe living conditions (e.g., fecal/urine smell, unwashed beddings, tripping hazards, no heat or air conditioning)
Sometimes also called senior fraud, financial exploitation is when a trusted individual uses an elder’s money, property, or assets without their consent or understanding. Such acts include but are not limited to:
- Forging a senior’s signature
- Deceiving a senior into signing a document
- Cashing a senior’s checks without authorization
The following can signal senior fraud:
- Unexpected withdrawals of large amounts of money
- Unexplained disappearance of money, possessions, or valuables
- Sudden changes to estate planning documents or property deeds
- Inclusion of additional names and signatures on financial documents
- New loans or mortgages
Abandonment occurs when a person responsible for caring for an older adult or who has legal custody of them willfully deserts that individual.
In many cases, caretakers abandon seniors in their own homes or institutions such as hospitals or nursing homes. Sometimes, older adults can also be deserted at shopping centers or other public locations.
As the term suggests, self-neglect is when an older adult refuses or fails to provide themselves with food, water, shelter, medication, comfort, shelter, and other necessities. This excludes mentally competent seniors who make the conscious and voluntary decision to do so.
To prove elder abuse in California, elements like physical abuse, senior fraud, neglect, abandonment, isolation, and other treatment causing bodily harm, pain, or mental suffering must be present.
Below, we look at the criminal and civil laws penalizing such behaviors.
California Penal Code Section 368 (Criminal Law)
The California Penal Code Section 368 (PC 368) is a wide-ranging criminal law covering physical, emotional, and financial forms of elder abuse. It treats the abuse of older people as a “wobbler offense,” meaning that it can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.
How Prosecutors Charge An Elder Abuse Crime
Elder abuse is considered a felony under PC 368 if the defendant:
- Knew that the victim was an elder or dependent adult
- Willfully caused or permitted an elder to suffer or inflicted unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering
- Is an elder’s caretaker and willfully caused or permitted their person or health to be injured
- Is an elder’s caretaker and willfully caused the elder to be in a situation endangering their person or health.
Prosecutors generally charge elder abuse as a misdemeanor based on the same factors, but the difference is that the abuse is not likely to cause serious bodily harm or death.
What Is the Penalty for Elder Abuse in California?
The punishment an abuser receives depends on whether the abusive act is deemed a misdemeanor or a felony.
If convicted under PC 368 as a felony, the abuser will face all or any of the following:
- State imprisonment for 2-4 years, or imprisonment in the county jail for up to a year
- Fines up to $6,000
- Both imprisonment and fines
Other than these, they may also face:
- Community service ordered by the court
- Counseling services ordered by the court
The defendant convicted of misdemeanor abuse will face the same fines as a felony conviction. They can also face informal probation, restitution, and counseling. However, they are only subject to up to one year in county jail.
The California Elder Abuse Act (Civil Law)
On the civil side, the primary legislation for pursuing elder abuse claims in California is the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (EADACPA).
What is the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act?
Frequently shortened as the California Elder Abuse Act, this was enacted to protect infirm elderly persons and dependent adults.
Since elder abuse cases in California are rarely prosecuted as criminal matters, the Act exists to provide enhanced civil remedies for abused or neglected elders. It particularly designated organizations such as adult protective services agencies, long-term care ombudsmen, and local law enforcement agencies to investigate reports of elder abuse, take necessary actions to protect older adults, and correct the situation.
The California Elder Abuse Age Limit
Under the California statute, elders refer to persons 65 years and older. However, the Act also applies to adults outside this age range if they are considered dependent adults. Dependent adults include anyone between 18 and 64 who has physical or mental limitations affecting their ability to perform everyday activities or protect their rights.
While there are similarities between actions covered by PC 368 and the Act, there are some noteworthy differences.
- PC 368 is a criminal statute punishing defendants through jail times or fines. Meanwhile, the Act is a civil statute offering remedies for plaintiffs through monetary damages.
- PC 368 only applies to willful conduct, while the Act also covers reckless conduct..
- The California Elder Abuse Act identifies a class of mandated reporters or individuals required by law to report suspected incidents of elder abuse to appropriate authorities.
California Elder Abuse Reporting Requirements
The class of mandatory reporters created by the Act includes:
- The staff of public and private care facilities and healthcare workers
- Eldercare custodians
- Clergy members
- Employees of adult protective service agencies
- Law enforcement officers
These individuals are required to report actual or suspected elder abuse, whether it be physical abuse, senior fraud, neglect, isolation, or abandonment. Moreover, they must report such incidents immediately by phone, followed by a written report within two working days.
- For elder abuse involving less than serious bodily injuries, reporters must contact law enforcement and ombudsmen within 24 hours.
- For cases involving serious bodily injuries, they must reach out to law enforcement within two hours and report the abuse to the ombudsmen within 24 hours.
Failure to report elder abuse is considered a misdemeanor and is punishable by a fine of $1,000 or up to six months in jail, or both. If the unreported abuse resulted in death or severe disability, the punishment could escalate to a $5,000 fine, one year in jail, or both.
With all of this in mind, you can still report elder abuse even if you are not a mandated reporter. For example, if you know or suspect abuse in nursing homes, you may reach out to:
- The Department of Public Health (DPH)
- The local law enforcement
- Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
- The Office of State Attorney General, Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse
If the abuse occurred in a home or apartment, you may report it to:
- Adult Protective Services (APS) in your county
- The local law enforcement and the District Attorney’s Office
What Happens when you Report Elder Abuse to Adult Protective Services in California?
Every county in California has an Adult Protective Services (APS) agency that helps protect vulnerable adults from abuse or neglect. After receiving reports, they will launch their elder abuse investigation process and arrange for various protective services as needed.
If you discover a senior being abused and the situation is an emergency, it’s best to call 911 to involve law enforcement officials as well. Doing so helps ensure the senior’s safety while the APS works out the longer-term solutions.
Elder Abuse California Statute of Limitations
You must act promptly in reporting elder abuse and filing a lawsuit. Under the statute of limitations in California, you have two years to file an elder abuse or neglect case in court. This limitation may be shorter depending upon important considerations such as whether the wrongdoer is a government entity, a healthcare provider, and whether you intend to allege other causes of action against them.
The clock generally starts ticking from when the injury happened or when you should have known of the abuse. However, this can be difficult to determine since most elder abuse cases in California do not involve one singular incident. Moreover, many seniors suffer from cognitive impairment, further complicating the timelines.
If you miss this deadline, you may automatically lose the chance to recover compensations your loved one deserves. Do not delay in speaking with an experienced elder abuse attorney if you believe you may have a case.
Informed Legal Help Can Protect Your Elderly Loved One
If you believe that an older loved one is suffering from elder abuse, you can hold their abusers accountable and seek remedies.
However, since the California Elder Abuse Law as a whole is complex, it is best to consult an experienced elder abuse attorney. They can tell you whether you have a case, advise you regarding how to prove that case in California, and then guide you through the complicated litigation process. Ultimately, they can help you understand your best legal options so that you can protect your loved one and hold abusive and neglectful individuals accountable.