Nassau prosecutors say some of the community's most vulnerable members have fallen victim to a spike in physical violence during the coronavirus pandemic, as quarantine conditions created "a perfect storm" for elder abuse.
The number of felony arrests for elder abuse cases for the year has hit 36, compared with 13 arrests by the end of August in the county last year — a trend Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas called troubling in a recent interview.
Prosecutors say conditions aimed at preventing COVID-19 spread, where families lived in isolation for months, brewed more conflict between senior citizens and adult children or grandchildren who already had struggled with addiction problems and mental illness in their multigenerational homes.
“It is sort of what we expected with the onset of COVID and people being in their homes. This sort of exacerbated situations that were already problematic and abusive,” Singas said.
Add in financial stresses, anxiety about isolation, and a downturn in services available for those who struggle with addiction and the potential for violence against elders in the home can really escalate, according to experts.
“All of that has just created this situation that is a perfect storm,” Singas said.
Statistics that Singas’ office released show the volume of elder abuse arrests began intensifying this spring, showing a slight gain in April and cresting to a total of 31 cases between then and now. In the same time period last year, Nassau had eight such arrests. The Suffolk District Attorney's Office last week did not respond to requests to provide statistics on elder abuse cases.
Most of the 2020 cases involved child-on-parent abuse, with the defendants ranging from 18 to 60 years old. But there also has been grandparent abuse and a case that happened in an assisted living facility, according to prosecutors.
They said most of the cases resulted in assault charges and several included criminal contempt offenses, with defendants arrested for violating protective orders.
Arlene Markarian, who heads the district attorney's Elder Abuse Unit, has worked since its formation in late 2016 to create a multidisciplinary team that includes personnel from 15 agencies that collaborate to benefit seniors.
Among team members are social workers, medical and financial professionals, attorneys and other law enforcement officials whose aim is to support seniors and help attack problems festering in their households, prosecutors said.
Markarian said resolving criminal cases often can include arranging plea deals where offenders go into diversion programs and get treatment for underlying issues like mental illness and substance abuse.
But the upward trend of local elder abuse could be even more widespread than arrest statistics show.
Anne Kilarjian, a case manager with nonprofit Family and Children’s Association, said some seniors have told her they didn’t want to call the police on a relative because of fears that person would go to jail and catch COVID-19 there.
Kilarjian, whose Mineola agency is one of those that partners with prosecutors, said she noticed a surge in elder abuse cases in May, April and June.
A number of clients who are victims of such crimes have said their abusers relapsed into addiction after not being able to get in-person support during the pandemic, the social worker said.
Prosecutors and senior citizen advocates said one of the ways to fight the upward abuse trend during the pandemic is for people to check in on elderly neighbors and friends — even if it’s just a phone call or a socially distanced greeting at a front door.
Signs that something is awry could include a senior citizen skipping medical appointments or religious services, or appearing underfed or poorly groomed, according to prosecutors.
“Pick up the phone, call them, hear their voice, find out what’s going on. And just go take a look at them, even if you do it from the door,” Singas said.
Advocates also said seniors who are struggling with abuse shouldn’t be embarrassed to reach out for help.
Kilarjian said her agency provides resources that include outfitting seniors with a low-cost pendant that connects to emergency services, doing safety planning to train them to protect themselves and helping to find appropriate treatment programs for abusers.
“They don’t have to live a life where they’re frightened or harmed or exploited by anybody, even family members,” she said of senior citizens. “And if they reach out we will try to help them and we will do it in a way that respects their family relationships and their family bonds.”
Elder Abuse Resources
- People who suspect or want to report elder abuse in Nassau County can call the district attorney's Criminal Complaint Unit at 516-571-3505.
- Seniors seeking support can call the nonprofit Family and Children's Association at 516-292-1300.
Tips For Stopping Elder Abuse
- Check in on elderly friends, neighbors and relatives regularly
- Find out what's going on if someone stops coming to a senior center or house of worship
- Notice whether the senior looks cleans and nourished
- Check the senior's kitchen for food and keep an eye out for overdue bill notices
- Watch to see if anyone new moves in with a senior and seems to take over that person's life
Source: Nassau District Attorney's Office