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"Group worries elder abuse underreported in Calif."

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer
The Associated Press
Los Angeles
Nov. 3, 2009

A state watchdog group says elder abuse may be underreported because of budget cuts to programs aimed at ensuring the safety of California seniors, and confused interpretations of state and federal law.

In a report released Tuesday, the state Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes said the number of complaints from ombudsman about problems in elder care facilities has dropped more than 40 percent since budget cuts were enacted last year. The report's authors fear the decline in reports means abuse is going unreported.

In California, 1,377 nursing facilities and 7,648 residential care facilities come under the review of ombudsmen, who do announced and unannounced inspections and follow up on complaints ranging from colds to violent abuse. The ombudsmen's role is particularly key in cases where an abuse victim may be incapable of tracking their own treatment.

Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, said she requested the report out of concern that "when our ombudsman services are cut, more senior nursing home residents are abused."

Last October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut all state funding for the ombudsman program, dropping the budget to $4 million in federal funds for fiscal year 2009, down from $7.9 million the previous year.

In many parts of the state, budget cuts have resulted in staffing cuts. With fewer ombudsmen, there are fewer surprise visits at the state's long-term care facilities.

"When we lost our funding, rather than being a proactive program, it turned us into a reactionary program," said Joan Parks, an ombudsman administrator overseeing 13 county programs in Northern California. "The ombudsman program, through unannounced monitoring visits, served as a very strong mode of prevention of abuse and neglect, just by that ongoing presence."

The state Department of Aging, which oversees the ombudsman program, will evaluate the report's recommendations because it "takes very seriously its responsibility to protect elder abuse victims," said spokeswoman Sarah Ludeman.

"The report points out the tension between the federal Older American Act requirements of confidentiality and consent of elder abuse victims and the state law that requires ombudsmen to report cases of elder abuse," said Ludeman, declining further comment.

The state recognizes ombudsmen as mandated reporters akin to schoolteachers who have a responsibility to report abuse, even without the permission of the vulnerable population they work to protect. However, the federal Older Americans Act restrains ombudsmen from forwarding their findings to enforcement agencies without written consent of the resident, according to the report.

"The last thing we should do is handcuff those who we entrust to watch over the care and safety of our elderly loved ones with conflicting and ill-conceived mandates, confusing protocol, and inadequate regulations," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in a statement.
The ombudsman program's budget will increase in fiscal year 2010 to $5.7 million.

California, Alaska, South Carolina, New Jersey and South Dakota are the only states that require ombudsmen to investigate abuse and neglect, according to the report. In most other states, the role of ombudsman is limited to lesser complaints, like cold food, drafty facilities or noisy televisions.
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Published: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 00:02 PST