The state of Washington has a long-standing commitment to protect vulnerable adults in our communities. Because law enforcement and social service agencies cannot be everywhere at all times, the state looks to all of us, as responsible, caring citizens, to prevent or stop the elderly from being harmed by reporting suspected abuse immediately.

While anyone can report suspected abuse, a certain group of people have a special responsibility to report. These are the “mandated reporters,” and typically include social workers, teachers and other school personnel, health care workers, child care providers, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and those who work in facilities licensed by DSHS such as nursing homes. Another group is employees of a social service, welfare, mental health, adult day care, home health, home care or hospice agency. This group includes caregivers and the office staff of all home care agencies that provide care of the elderly.

The job of a mandated reporter is to stay alert and immediately report suspicions of elderly abuse. DSHS defines abuse as intentionally causing pain, suffering, and/or injury to a vulnerable adult. Abuse can be financial, physical, verbal, emotional or sexual. It includes abandonment, neglect (including self-neglect) or exploitation (usually financial). It has been estimated that roughly two-thirds of those who harm a vulnerable adult are family members, most often the victim’s adult child or spouse.

According to the Administration on Aging (AOA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, every year an estimated 5 million older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation. And that’s only part of the picture as experts believe that for every case of elder abuse or neglect reported; as many as five cases go unreported.

One of the reasons elderly abuse so often goes unreported is that most people don’t want to accuse others of wrong-doing and/or the mandated reporter is not sure that what they observe can really be considered abuse. A key criteria that makes the job of mandatory reporter work is that absolute proof is not required before reporting a suspected case of elderly abuse. In fact, Washington State Code, in RCW 74.34.050, the Immunity from Liability law, protects mandated reporters as well as any person “participating in good faith in making a report under this chapter or testifying about alleged abuse, neglect, abandonment, financial exploitation, or self-neglect of a vulnerable adult….. is immune from liability.” Additionally, according to state code RCW 74.34.053, Failure to report — False reports — Penalties, “A person who is required to make a report under this chapter and who knowingly fails to make the report is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.”

The AOA reports that vulnerable seniors who are abused are twice as likely to be hospitalized, four times as likely to go into nursing homes and three times as likely to die. If any of us has reason to think that a case of abuse has or may be occurring, it is incumbent upon all of us to make a report to law enforcement or Adult Protective Services (APS) at 1-800-221-4909.

photo credit: Project Focus video “An Age for Justice” via photopin (license)