Elder Abuse by the Mentally Ill

Elder Abuse by the Mentally Ill


Sadly, it’s an all too common scenario.  Aging parents are the most common caretakers for their mentally ill children.  Many report inadequate medical services for the mentally ill.  When a crisis erupts, whether it be from a medication change or introduction of street drugs, violence ensues frequently.  The violence can range from pushing to a single strike to full-blown torture.  When the victim feels unsafe, the police will likely be summoned to intervene.  This results in the introduction of the mentally ill to the criminal justice system. While, generally speaking, the criminal justice system is a crude tool for solving medical issues and family dysfunction, there are many options for good outcomes.

For reasons of financial necessity and self-preservation, at some point many parents will evict a mentally ill loved one from the home. Sometimes a restraining order is needed to enforce their wishes.  Because of the di minimis nature of a single restraining order violation, coupled with poor trial equities (such as the protected party allowing the restrained person back home “just for one night”) criminal charges are usually declined.  However, if the violations are repetitive and involve stalking or violence, criminal charges can sometimes succeed in being “the stick” that an offender needs as an incentive to obey the court order, if capable.  An initial sentence would always involve probation and very little, if any, jail time and could prove successful in deterring future violations and violence; so long as the protected party continues to enforce it scrupulously.

Turning to more serious events, a mentally ill person may act violently without provocation and little warning.  In one tragic case, a severely developmentally disabled 68-year-old defendant attacked his sister who had been his caretaker for years.  Upset over his meal, he beat her with his hands and fists in the kitchen until she escaped under the guise of needing her glasses to prepare different food.  She was able to call 911 but soon fell into a coma and subsequently died of a brain hemorrhage.  Criminal charges were brought and the case was expedited through the system.  A doubt was declared as to the defendant’s competency and he was committed to the Department of State Hospitals for restoration.  The Department of State Hospitals quickly ascertained that he suffered from a grave mental illness and was unlikely to ever regain competency.  He had no ability to care for himself and nobody left to take care of him.  That finding by the hospital allowed the Court to refer the matter to the Office of the Public Guardian who initiated conservatorship proceedings.  Soon, he will be conserved and placed into a safe, appropriate setting.

Ideally, in victim-centered prosecution, the victim’s wishes are always honored.  Cases of elder abuse present some difficulty in that regard.  The cycle of abuse in any family situation, whether it be domestic violence or elder abuse, results in reluctant victims at times.  No matter how many violent incidents have transpired, parents hold on to faith that each time will be the last and an arrest or 48 hour psychiatric hold has succeeded in abating the problem.  That is rarely the case and such victims are sometimes protected with a criminal protective order (CPO) against their will for a period of time necessary to break the cycle of violence.  CPOs are efficiently executed and served at an arraignment making it effective immediately without the necessity of the victim taking any action. For some, this will be the first time being apart in their lives, thereby initiating a major adjustment.  However, for many victims they realize just how out-of-control their life has become and develop the strength to start protecting themselves.

Whenever possible, the negotiated disposition for a mentally ill offender will involve mental health treatment.  The available options continue to grow.  Presently, there is Behavioral Health Court and Forensic Mental Services.  People with private health insurance can avail themselves of covered benefits.  The Office of the Public Defender effectively utilizes social service workers skilled at assessing resources and finding accommodations to suit the need.  Standard addiction locked facilities are presently more available than facilities that can address dual diagnosis issues.  These types of probation orders focus on treatment and prevention; the type of solution desired by all victims.  Finally, there is a new Mental Health Diversion program available to some offenders where mental illness played a significant role in the commission of the crime.  This program allows for treatment then dismissal of the charges.

On the extreme end of the spectrum, criminal acts committed by the mentally ill can result in a life term.    In one case, a long-time sufferer of schizophrenia trapped his elderly father in the garage and tortured him for hours causing great bodily injury.  The victim wanted his son “locked up for life.”  The defendant clearly meant to hurt his father and knew what he was doing and was unlikely to be found not guilty by reason of insanity by a jury.  However, one court-appointed expert opined that he was insane at the time of the offense.  Faced with the choice of sentencing the defendant to life in prison for the torture, which would make him eligible for parole in seven years, or allowing him to be found not guilty by reason of insanity and committing him the Department of State Hospitals indefinitely, the victim and the defendant chose the life commitment to the hospital.  The defendant is entitled to demonstrate restoration of insanity and petition for release every two years.

Our elderly population swells by the day.  It is incumbent upon the government to protect those vulnerable members of society.  When the offender is a loved one plagued with mental illness, special challenges arise in the criminal justice system.  However, so long as we continue to evolve and cater the method to the individual as much as possible, we can continue to serve the entire population by treating people with dignity and respect.