The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has created an Elder Law Task Force charged with
studying the growing problems involved with guardianship, abuse and neglect, and access to justice involving the commonwealth’s senior citizens according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The task force, which will be chaired by Justice Debra Todd, has been charged with recommending solutions that include amended court rules, legislation, education and best practices.
“The increased population of older Pennsylvanians has strained the resources of our courts and their ability to provide services to these individuals,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille said in a statement. “The needs of this growing population will continue for years to come, especially in regards to guardianships, elder abuse and access to justice.
“Now is the time to put in place solutions that will allow older Pennsylvanians to age without worries that they will be abused or their money will be taken.”
The task force, which will be comprised of 38 elder law experts including judges, lawyers and social workers, will be made up of three different subcommittees, one addressing appointment and qualifications of guardians and attorneys, one dealing with guardianship monitoring and data collection, and the last focusing on elder abuse and powers of attorney.
The task force will have one year in which to complete its work.
“As a society, we have increased concentration on child abuse, but the issue of elder abuse has not kept pace,” Justice Todd, the task force’s chair, said in a statement. “This task force is the judiciary’s attempt to study the issues under its purview and make adjustments now, before the numbers of older Pennsylvanians and the commensurate jump in abuse, occurs.”
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has noted that according to the United States Census Bureau, the over-65 population is now larger in terms of size and percentage of population than it was in any previous census.
The commonwealth currently ranks in at number four in the nation in percentage of citizens 65 and older.
To illustrate the problems being addressed by the task force, the AOPC listed three examples of Pennsylvania stories involving elder abuse.
One involved a 64-year-old Lancaster man who depended upon a personal care aide to bathe him, dress him and fix his meals because he is an amputee.
According the police, the aide actually ended up neglecting him so badly that the man developed skin ulcers deep enough to reach his muscle and bone.
The man eventually lost his remaining leg to amputation because of the wounds.
The second example offered was that of a Dauphin County man who stole nearly $380,000 from his 89-year-old great aunt, a retired teacher. The man was the woman’s power of attorney, and he ended up cashing in his aunt’s pension money and Social Security checks.
The final story involved a dying Bucks County woman who had asked a neighbor to handle her personal finances because she was about to enter a nursing home.
Rather than pay the nursing home bills, however, the neighbor allegedly spent the money on luxury vacations, trips to casinos, expensive jewelry and for country club and golf club memberships.
The neighbor is facing 35 years behind bars for the five felony theft charges that have been lodged against him.
“At least these cases were eventually reported,” Justice Todd said in her statement. “The U.S. Administration of Aging’s National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that for every one case of elder abuse reported, five more go unreported. This is shameful, and we need to do better.”
Research funded by the National Institute of Justice showed that nearly 11 percent of people 60 years of age and older suffered from some sort of abuse in 2009.
The task force’s work coincides with the passage of Senate Bill 620 last month that makes changes to Pennsylvania’s powers of attorney law designed to help protect against elder abuse.
The legislation gives courts more power to act if financial abuse is suspected of those who hold power of attorney, and it would require the signature of those granting power of attorney to be acknowledged in the presence of a notary public.
The proposal also protects third parties from liability by ensuring that powers of attorney are legitimately executed.
In prepared comments, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the Montgomery County Republican behind the measure, said that the legislation “would provide significantly more protection against those who are seeking to defraud the elderly. Recent cases in Pennsylvania have demonstrated the need for more oversight for those who are being given power of attorney. The elderly are highly vulnerable in these situations, and are too often taken advantage of.”