How to Report Elder Abuse in Oregon

An overview of the laws meant to protect you, and how a lawyer can help enforce them

Elder abuse is a growing problem in Oregon. According to the state's Department of Human Services, there are more than 2,500 substantiated reports of elder abuse in Oregon each year. In fact, national surveys indicate that 1 out of every 10 elderly people living at home is subject to some form of abuse, neglect or exploitation.

To help identify and combat elder abuse, Oregon law imposes certain reporting obligations on a wide range of public and private officials—including lawyers. But any Oregonian can report suspected abuse. DHS maintains a toll-free hotline that can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-855-503-SAFE (7233).

“When people see abuse, one option is to call the hotline number. That’s put them in contact with DHS and adult protective services, who then go out and investigate. That hotline is confidential, and will never let anyone know your name was used,” says Wesley D. Fitzwater, an elder abuse and estate planning attorney with Fitzwater Law in Portland. “But the other thing would be to get that person who has been victimized to an attorney.”

Here’s why.

What Is Considered “Elder Abuse” in Oregon?

Oregon's Elderly Persons and Persons with Disabilities Abuse Prevention Act is the principal state law governing claims of elder abuse. The law is targeted to protect “any person 65 years of age or older” who is not living in a long-term care facility. The Act itself defines abuse broadly to cover any of the following acts:

  • Inflicting physical injury on the person
  • Neglect, such as intentionally withholding services necessary to maintain the person's “health and well-being”
  • Abandoning or willfully deserting the person
  • Using “derogatory or inappropriate” language to the person, including but not limited to “profanity, ridicule, harassment, coercion, threats, cursing, intimidation or inappropriate sexual comments”
  • Financial abuse, including “[w]rongfully taking or appropriating” the person's money or other property, either directly or through coercion or intimidation
  • Sexual abuse, including any sexual contact with “an elderly person or person with a disability considered incapable of consenting to a sexual act” as defined by Oregon law

“The best way to define abuse is two red flags: One is a vulnerable person, and the other is some kind of substantial physical, emotional or financial harm,” says Fitzwater. “Elder abuse is anyone over the age of 65, but abuse also occurs for younger people experiencing cognitive impairment.”

An elderly person subjected to any of these abuses may, within a 180-day period, file a petition with the appropriate Oregon circuit court, seeking a restraining order against the abuser. The elderly person (or their legal representative) may also apply for additional relief by filing a civil lawsuit.

Depending on the specific facts and circumstances of the elder abuse, the court may issue a temporary injunction against the abuser and, in cases of financial abuse, order the return of any misappropriated property. The DHS, the Oregon attorney general, or the local district attorney may also bring their own action against an elder abuser, which may lead to a $25,000 penalty.

“Most of the personal physical injury cases are investigated by DHS and submitted to law enforcement. There are some personal injury attorneys who might take neglect or nursing abuse cases, but that’s rare,” Fitzwater says. “The most common elder abuse cases are financial. In Oregon, we can go after bad guys and get money back, property back, and can get treble [or punitive] damages. It’s a very strong statute with a lot of teeth and ways to go after bad guys to make victims whole again.”

When Should You Speak with a Lawyer?

If you’re successful in your lawsuit, Fitzwater notes, not only do you stand to receive compensation for what was taken plus more for damages, “but the statutes provide attorneys’ fees, court fees, conservatorship costs—it’s very, very broad. I don’t know that I’ve seen a statute that’s as broad about recovery. It’s good, protective law.”

There is, however, a caveat that can make some cases difficult. “We probably turn down half of the cases that come into our office, not because they’re bad cases or someone wasn’t wronged, but because their money has been spent already,” Fitzwater says. “The bad guy took the money, blew it all, and has no other penny to their name, so suing them isn’t going to do any practical good. However, there is an extra provision that allows you to bring an added suit against a third party who knew or should have known that abuse was occurring and failed to do anything about it.”

If you are an abused person or the family member of someone you suspect is being abused, it is in your best interest to speak with a qualified Oregon elder law attorney as soon as possible. Keep in mind, however, that while legal ethics rules protect attorney-client confidentiality, Oregon also considers attorneys mandatory reporters under elder abuse laws. This means that when a licensed attorney has “reasonable cause” to believe someone they “come in contact” with has suffered elder abuse, that attorney may be required to notify the DHS. 

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