Beatryce Lessie Hansen died alone in a cold apartment; her power had been turned off, she had no phone and her son was out of town.
The circumstances surrounding Hansen’s death demonstrate a growing problem impacting one of the most vulnerable groups in the United States: the elderly.
Hansen was found on the floor next to a hospital bed in her home in the 300 block of Palmetto Drive in Edgewood on Feb. 28, 2011. The 72-year-old may have been there for a day or more before she was found.
“It was hard to say because there was no heat in the apartment, there was no decay,” Harford County State’s Attorney Joe Cassilly said.
Her son, Bradley Kai Hansen, had access to her bank accounts but hadn’t taken care of the electric bill, Cassilly said.
“The electric bill hadn’t been paid, she didn’t have a phone. He was using her bank account money to pay for a phone for him, but he couldn’t use her bank account money to buy a phone for her,” Cassilly said. “He was trying to isolate her. He was just draining all the money out of the bank account.”
Bradley Hansen later pleaded guilty to abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult family member and exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He was sentenced to serve four years in prison.
Beatryce Hansen’s story is not an uncommon one.
According to a fact sheet provided by the Maryland Department of Aging, an average of between 1 and 2 million reports of elderly and vulnerable adult abuse are made nationwide every year, but estimates are that only 1 in 14 cases are ever reported.
Here in Maryland, the state health department’s Adult Protective Services Program received about 6,801 reports of abuse, neglect, self-neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults age 18 or older in fiscal year 2012.
That same year, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention worked with 194 victims of domestic violence who were age 60 or older, and the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence reported 15 of the 49 people killed in domestic violence incidents were age 51 or older.
“It really is a big issue and it’s getting bigger,” Donna Smith with the Maryland Department of Aging said.
It’s a problem that one Baltimore City legislator says requires better legislation and increased awareness.
“Absolutely there’s a lack of awareness,” Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Democrat representing the city’s 45th district, said of vulnerable adult abuse.
The issue of elderly abuse is one that has a close personal connection for her.
For several years before her mother passed away, Glenn served as her mother’s caregiver and champion as the older woman’s health declined. The experience opened Glenn’s eyes to how truly vulnerable many in her mother’s position can be.
“During that term, it was my first one-on-one with nursing facilities and rehab facilities that service mostly the elderly population, and I was appalled with what people deal with, particularly the elderly population that really have no one advocating for them,” Glenn said.
Glenn said if she and her sister weren’t there to make sure her mother received the care she needed, the older woman’s health would have suffered.
“There are a lot of people out there who just don’t have someone to advocate for them,” Glenn said.
During the past several legislative sessions, Glenn has proposed legislation to further protect the vulnerable adult population.
In 2012, the year after Hansen’s death, Glenn co-sponsored a bill that would require electric companies to report an interruption of service for customers over 65 for failure to pay an electric bill. Under the proposed legislation, the report would be made to Adult Protective Services.
The bill was never made into law, however.
During the most recent legislative session, Glenn proposed a bill to create a vulnerable adult abuse registry inspired by another instance of elderly abuse in Maryland.
In 2007, police said a camera Jacki Taylor put up to monitor her 90-year-old father’s care instead captured his caregiver beating him as he lay helpless in bed.
The woman responsible fled the country and was later extradited back to Maryland where she pleaded guilty to three counts of the abuse of a vulnerable adult. She was sentenced to six years in prison.
Glenn explained that if that caregiver, or someone under similar circumstances, returned to the United States they could again seek employment in the same field.
She said that there are registries for those who abuse children, but not for those who abuse the also-vulnerable elderly.
In Maryland, child protective services information can be searched to screen for employment or volunteer activities that include contact with children, foster and adoptive parenting and to review custody petitions, according to the state’s website.
The request must be notarized.
Glenn envisions something similar to this or the sex offender registry
for vulnerable adult abusers. Having convictions of vulnerable adult abuse available for background searches would take some of the questions out of finding a reliable caregiver, she said.
“You should be able to at least make sure that they haven’t had any kind of charges brought against them, and without a registry how do we do that,” Glenn said.
The bill was not passed into law, but Glenn plans to continue a push for some kind of vulnerable abuse registry.
Cassilly agreed that the problem of elderly abuse is a growing one.
“This is maybe the first generation who is routinely living into their 90s, so you have children who themselves are hitting retirement age and now taking responsibility for their parents,” Cassilly said.
Sometimes this involves trusting a caregiver with the wellbeing of a loved one. With no uniform registry to check a person’s background for elderly abuse allegations, Glenn says the process can be a challenge.
Sometimes, like in Beatryce Hansen’s case, the loved ones themselves take advantage.
“We have a lot of trouble with misuse of powers of attorney,” Cassilly said.
He added his office encourages private lawyers to give limited power of attorney and consider the elderly person involved as the client.
“It should not only be limited in scope, but it should have a limitation of date as well,” Cassilly said.