Protecting the Elderly from Abuse

Create policies and procedures to protect older adults in your church.

Many churches create child abuse protection plans to keep kids safe from abuse. Older adults, especially those who are housebound and unable to fully care for themselves, deserve our protection too. Seniors who have family members or caretakers that come into their homes to visit and care for them are especially vulnerable to neglect, exploitation, and abuse. Here are three things your pastoral staff should know and do to keep older adults in your church safe.

1. Screen Volunteers

Do you have volunteers who regularly visit shut-ins? Or a ministry to seniors that requires volunteers to serve one-on-one with the elderly? If so, take precautions to screen these workers carefully. Most abuse claims for churches hinge on the screening and selection process used for staff and volunteers. To reduce the risk of negligent screening, take care to select volunteers with clean background checks, strong references, and at least a six month history at the church. Here are some additional tips for selecting volunteers for your ministry:

Fill in the blanks. All prospective workers should complete a written application form. An application provides information that can be used to conduct reference checks and an interview.
Obtain asking rights. Your application form should include a liability release, signed by the applicant, giving you permission to contact references and obtain any criminal records. It also should release from liability the person being asked to provide information.
Check references. Contact all individuals, former employers, and organizations listed in the application. Learning what others say about an individual’s past performance and conduct is a vital part of the screening process.
Schedule an Interview. You’ll get a better sense of whether the applicant will be a good fit for your ministry when you meet in person.
Look for criminal records. Conduct a criminal records check on all paid and volunteer staff, even ministers, before putting them to work.
Evaluate the results. A criminal conviction may not disqualify someone from a church position. You’ll need to evaluate the severity of the offense, how long ago it happened, and whether it pertains to the position being filled. An attorney could help you with this analysis.

2. Recognize Signs of Abuse

Whether volunteers or staff members are visiting the elderly in their homes or counseling them at church, there are red flags that should concern workers. The Administration on Aging gives the following warning signs of abuse:

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
  • Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
  • Behavior such as belittling or threats and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
  • Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs. When one or several of these signs are present, church workers should consider reporting an abuse claim to authorities.

3. Responsibility for Reporting Abuse

Similar to child abuse reporting laws, clergy may be mandated to report suspected elder abuse depending on your state’s laws. To find out if you’re a mandatory reporter of your state go to your state’s Department of Aging. Google your state’s Department of Aging to find the web address for your state. For example, a pastor in Illinois would go to the Illinois Department of Aging’s website and look under Elder Abuse and Prevention where it shows that clergy are not on Illinois’ list of mandatory reporters. The National Center on Elder Abuse also provides a directory for prevention resources by state, which can lead you to your state’s reporting laws.

In the article “The Risks of Not Reporting Abuse,” Richard HCopyammar states, “Ministers are specifically identified as mandatory reporters under a few [state] statutes. But even if they are not, they may be mandatory reporters if they fall within a listed classification, such as school or child care workers and administrators, or counselors.” Though Hammar is speaking of reporting child abuse, many state laws follow similar statutes for elder abuse.

If you are a mandatory reporter in your state, you may be required to report both suspected and actual cases of abuse. Failing to report what you know, could be considered a misdemeanor. The Administration of Aging encourages reporters to call 911 or a local police force if someone is in immediate danger, otherwise, you can find a reporting number for your state by visiting the Eldercare Locator website or calling 1-800-677-1116.

It’s important to protect older adults in our congregations, especially when they are incapable of protecting themselves. If you haven’t created policies for protecting the elderly from abuse in your church, make this an agenda item for your next board or staff meeting to start crafting these plans.

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