Abused and Forgotten: Elder Abuse in Minnesota

How to overcome the backlog and successfully seek justice

By Benjy Schirm, J.D. | Last updated on June 15, 2022

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IIn 2016, reports of elder abuse swelled in Minnesota—at least partly due to a then-new Adult Abuse Reporting Center (MAARC)—to the extent that the Office of Health Facility Complaints received 25,226 maltreatment allegations. That’s compared to roughly 4,000 in 2010.

If the reports are to be believed, thousands of vulnerable elderly Minnesotans are beaten, sexually abused, assaulted, and suffer financial abuse, neglect or emotional abuse every year. And even worse: 97 percent of these reports are never read, let alone prosecuted. To add insult to injury, the cases that are prosecuted often run into roadblocks because of insufficient investigation or lack of financial resources. So tens of thousands of vulnerable adults are ignored, their case files lost or forever pending, while their abusers remain free to continue the physical abuse.

What Can You Do to Report Abuse?

Currently the process for reporting an incident of older adult abuse is to report to the OHFC through the Minnesota Adult Abuse Reporting Center at 844-880-1574. These complaints will then be added to the yet-to-be-investigated stack, which are piled two feet high and often not read for months due to funding and, in turn, staffing.

“This problem didn’t just happen,” says Julian Zweber, an elder law attorney in St. Paul. “As legislators try to save money on health care programs to justify tax cuts, money is simply reallocated. Ordinary people are caught up in all of this and aren’t given good personal care on purpose to save money. The current administration is barely catching up on the neglect of previous administrations.”

The law states: “Investigators are required to interview at least one family member of the vulnerable adult identified in the complaint.” The investigation process is fairly labor intensive, and

The law also has a mandatory reporting clause if a provider has acted in a manner warranting criminal or disciplinary proceedings. The director must to refer the matter “to the state commissioner of health, the commissioner of human services, an appropriate prosecuting authority, or other appropriate agency.” If a case is referred to the prosecutor’s office or law enforcement and adult protective services, there are criminal and civil penalties for all types of vulnerable adult abuse. The law provides for charges of financial exploitation, maltreatment, neglect, and all of the penalties associated with breaking this law.

Sadly, this referral step isn’t happening often enough. This administrative backlog has tied prosecutor’s hands and made full criminal investigations almost impossible due to a lack of evidence.

What is Being Done?

Gov. Dayton and his staff have convened a Consumer Workgroup in association with the AARP to evaluate the actions needed. The current plan includes updating the computer systems and doubling the staff over four years. Fines have been increased and the definitions of who can be held liable have been broadened. Numerous heads of these agencies have stepped down or been removed and, in December 2017, the governor reassigned these cases to be managed by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

As the powers that be work to address this problem, 70 complaints of elder abuse will come in each day, on average. So what can you do?

What Can You Do?

If you have a claim of elder abuse, Suzy Scheller, an attorney appointed to the Workgroup, says you should make five calls: “First to MAARC, second to law enforcement or police department and social services, third to their family physician, fourth call the ombudsman who’s funded to be an advocate, and then the Minnesota Elder Justice Center for advice. Going further, people should remember there are state licensing boards to call, the board of nursing and physicians have regulatory boards that field complaints as well. … And when you make these initial calls to MAARC, make sure to provide as much information, documentation and specific instances that one can. Photos and videos of injuries and accounts of abuse can go a long way in helping investigations.”

The current recommendation from the Elder Justice Center is to be proactive if you see someone in need. In addition to the calls above, consider also reaching out to a reputable elder law attorney for advocacy.

“This is really about a power imbalance,” Scheller adds. “When a senior citizens needs care they are often not able to voice concerns and to get the care that they need. The biggest thing we can do is to empower advocates to reach out everyone they can to ensure the care of their vulnerable adults.”

For more information on this area, see our overview of elder law and nursing home laws.

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