Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from Adult Protection Services (APS) of North Central Health Care, which were submitted after press time.

Damakant Jayshi

Elder abuse is a rising problem in states nationwide including in Wisconsin, a development the state’s legislators and the governor aim to address through new legislation signed into law last week.

Among the five bills that Gov. Tony Evers signed on Friday, one related to abuse against the elderly people in the state. 

Senate Bill 17, now 2021 Wisconsin Act 76, creates harsher penalties for people who are convicted of elder abuse. The new legislation makes physical abuse of elderly people a crime, creates a framework for freezing or seizure of a defendant’s assets if charged with a financial exploitation crime involving an elderly person and allows elderly victims seeking a restraining order to appear in court remotely, if they choose to do so.

“Aging and older Wisconsinites are particularly vulnerable to financial and physical abuse and exploitation, and unfortunately, we are seeing a devastating and concerning rise in these crimes,” said Gov. Evers, in a statement released by his office. “This bill is an important bipartisan action to help put an end to elder abuse and protect some of our most vulnerable loved ones and neighbors.”

Officials from the Aging and Disability Resource Center of Central Wisconsin (ADRC-CW) welcomed the new law. 

“Elder abuse is a serious issue and unfortunately is a reality for too many of our most vulnerable Americans,” Jonette Arms, Executive Director of ADRC-CW told Wausau Pilot & Review. “I applaud the Wisconsin legislature for creating such a bill and thank Governor Evers for taking action to establish the 2021 Wisconsin Act 76.”

Arms pointed out the significance of designating physical abuse of elder abuse as a crime. 

“In Wisconsin, elder abuse was charged under general criminal statutes,” she said. “Now that Wisconsin has established Act 76 targeting elder abuse as a crime. I hope perpetrators will think before committing crimes against older adults.” 

ADRC reports instances of abuses to Adult Protection Services (APS) of North Central Health Care, which then investigates such complaints and takes appropriate action.

“Thus far in 2021, we’ve opened 291 cases, while in 2020 we opened 351 cases,” said Katie Miloch, manager of APS at North Central Health Care.

But many cases go unreported.

“Absolutely, not all cases of abuse are reported,” Arms from ADRC-CW. “Often older adults are being abused by someone they know such as a family member or caregiver and they fear repercussions from the abuser or they just do not want to get the person in trouble.”

“Absolutely, not all cases of abuse are reported,” Arms from ADRC-CW. “Often older adults are being abused by someone they know such as a family member or caregiver and they fear repercussions from the abuser or they just do not want to get the person in trouble.”

Late last month, a Wausau-area woman was convicted in her mother’s death in an elder abuse case. A week before the governor signed the bill, Mary E. Tessmer pleaded guilty to an amended charge of recklessly subjecting an individual at risk to abuse, causing death. Her sentencing is expected on Dec. 13.

In June, Mayor of Wausau, Katie Rosenberg, issued a proclamation designating June 15 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day. June 15 is also World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), elder abuse “is an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult.” Of the abusers, 65% were either close family members or service providers, friends or neighbors, or employers. They include offspring, spouses, caregivers, other relatives and employers.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services’ Annual Abuse and Neglect Report 2020 shows there were 9,473 reports of incidents regarding elderly people from all of the 72 Wisconsin counties. The number represents an increase of more than 65% in such cases since 2013. 

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), five million older Americans are abused every year. The annual loss suffered by “victims of financial abuse is estimated to be at least $36.5 billion.”

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.

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