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Sunday Seniors: Grant Helps Vermont Coalition Target Elder Abuse

  • Hartford Police Chief Phillip Kasten, Windsor County Special Investigation Unit Director Julie Gaudette, Senior Solutions Executive Director Carol Stamatakis, Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill and W.I.S.E. Assistant Director Abby Tassel met recently to discuss their roles in facilitating a $395,000 federal grant to prevent elder abuse. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Calendar Editor
Saturday, December 02, 2017

Springfield, Vt. — Few people are able to talk freely about elder abuse, but it’s a problem present in many communities.

It’s also something that social service agencies have long recognized and are eager to do something about. Last month, a coalition of government and nonprofit organizations that operate in Windsor County received a competitive federal grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, to confront the issue head on.

Only four of the three-year, $395,000 grants were awarded nationwide.

“What we see is the tip of the iceberg. There’s not a question in that,” said Carol Stamatakis, executive director of Springfield-based Senior Solutions, a nonprofit organization that assists senior citizens in Vermont and is the lead partner in the coalition.

That’s because, even in cases that qualify as domestic violence, vulnerable residents “don’t count themselves as victims,” Stamatakis said.

It becomes even more complicated when a perpetrator is a relative other than a spouse. “Then it’s even more removed. They don’t think it’s domestic violence,” she said. “They just think it’s something going on in their family that they don’t like. … They don’t think it violates any laws, or even if it does, they’re afraid to come forward.”

There’s also a lack of public attention and awareness. Stamatakis remembers, decades ago, when child abuse was not reported as frequently — even ignored — or people thought it was rare and couldn’t possibly be happening in their communities.

Today, there are mandatory reporting laws and better systems in place at the state and federal level to protect children and assist and protect abuse victims.

“I feel now it’s the time ... to recognize elder abuse as decades ago we came to terms with child abuse,” Stamatakis said. “If we want older members of society to be safe and protected, then we should encourage everyone in the community to report suspected cases of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.”

About 12 cases that fall under the purview of elder abuse are filed each year in Windsor County, said Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill.

“Usually it comes in the form of a charge that’s labeled abuse of a vulnerable adult,” he said. This includes financial exploitation and physical and sexual abuse.

Other charges with generic titles like forgery might not always get counted as elder abuse. “The statistics are going to underreport,” Cahill said.

That being said, “the reporting system has become more robust as adult protective services gains traction and outreach to support providers for elders and outreach to the public,” he said.

Like Stamatakis, Cahill drew a parallel with child abuse. “We don’t find out about those cases because the child goes to police,” he said. Law enforcement often finds out because a teacher, counselor, friend or other person who is part of a child’s life comes forward. With senior citizens, “it’s often the same situation,” Cahill said.

One significant difference between the two is, as children grow up, they develop the skills necessary to tell their stories and report cases of abuse.

“With vulnerable adults, the opposite is often true,” Cahill said. “Our victims decline.” They may be less likely to speak of abuse as they age, in part because of medical conditions.

As the population in Vermont continues to age, the need to bring attention to elder abuse continues to grow. The first stage of the three-year grant will involve a community needs assessment.

“It’s really scrutinizing what services and support we have now and how they’re working together and what a victim experiences now,” Stamatakis said. Then, they’ll start “looking at what are the gaps and what are the ways the systems can work better individually or together to support victims in all their needs.”

Stamatakis is confident that, with the support of coalition partners, including the Hartford Police Department, WISE of the Upper Valley, the Windsor County State Attorney’s Office and Windsor County Special Investigation Unit, it will be a worthwhile and important effort.

“Just the energy and commitment of the project partners was inspiring to me — truly inspiring — and that makes all the difference,” Stamatakis said.

“That’s what makes this project possible, more than the money. The money wouldn’t get us where we want to go if we didn’t have that commitment.”

Editor’s note: For more information about elder abuse, or to make a report, visit http://dlp.vermont.gov/aps. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.