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The Evolution of Financial Elder Abuse Laws in California

Elder abuse, including financial elder abuse, is, unfortunately, nothing new. It has been occurring as long as elders have been among us, which is to say — forever. What is new is how society responds to elder abuse. While laws and law enforcement mechanisms aimed at combatting crimes against children and animals arose in the 19th century, most states did not establish adult protective services departments specifically focused on combatting elder abuse until the 1980s. California, long on the cutting edge of American law and policy, was one of the first states to enact a comprehensive civil elder abuse law, the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act. Our California financial elder abuse attorneys have extensive experience pursuing claims under this act and other California elder abuse laws and are confident that we can pursue justice on your behalf. 

The Beginnings of Elder Abuse Law 

The concept of “elder abuse,” as we know it today, has not always been well-articulated. According to a 2015 paper published in the academic journal International Psychogeriatrics, widespread public concern about the welfare of vulnerable older adults as a distinct class of individuals arose in the mid-20th century. Initially, this concern was focused on the needs of elderly, impaired, and impoverished individuals living on their own who were experiencing what we now call “self-neglect.” Various protective services were established to address self-neglect, primarily by institutionalizing those experiencing it. 

The identification of elder abuse as a distinct phenomenon arose in the 1970s as a result of the identification of child abuse as a similarly distinct phenomenon. Child abuse was initially conceived of as the byproduct of caregiver stress, with early efforts to combat it focused on mitigating stress within parent-child relationships. Those efforts later broadened to include individuals other than parents as the scale of the child abuse problem became apparent. In 1974, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) — the first major step toward addressing child abuse at the federal level. 

The passage of CAPTA and a wider understanding of how the abuse of vulnerable individuals works led lawmakers and policymakers to apply the child abuse framework to elder abuse, which, by this point, was a concept that had expanded to include behaviors far beyond self-neglect. Laws targeting elder abuse modeled on those targeting child abuse began to be passed nationwide, and in 1987, Congress amended the Older Americans Act to include provisions related to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. At the state level, many states — including California — began to pass their own laws aimed at combatting physical elder abuse, financial elder abuse, and fraud and neglect of elders by caregivers

1982-1991: Focus on Reporting and Data Collection 

California’s landmark civil elder abuse protection law, the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (the “Act”) went into effect in 1982. The law originally was focused on identifying suspected elder abuse and encouraging reporting of elder abuse so that the relevant law enforcement authorities could deal with the issue. The original purpose of the Act, according to Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15601, was to:

  1. Require health practitioners, care custodians, clergy members, and employees of county adult protective services agencies and local law enforcement agencies to report known or suspected cases of abuse of elders and to encourage community members in general to do so.
  2. Collect information on the numbers of abuse victims, circumstances surrounding the act of abuse, and other data that will aid the state in establishing adequate services to aid all victims of abuse in a timely, compassionate manner.
  3. Provide protection for those persons who report suspected cases of abuse, provided that the report is not made with malicious intent.

The original Act was intended to address “abuse, neglect, or abandonment” of elders. Broadly, this referred to what we would now refer to as physical elder abuse. If you are someone you care about has been a victim of any type of elder abuse, a California financial elder abuse lawyer can help you. 

1991-Present: Focus on Enforcement and Expansion to Financial Elder Abuse

The Act has subsequently been amended several times, including the addition of Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15657 in 1991, which addresses private civil actions to enforce the Act’s provisions. The legislature felt that this provision was necessary because few civil actions had been pursued under the Act until that point. The 1991 amendment established a system of heightened remedies, including punitive damages and attorneys’ fees and costs, designed to provide incentives for “interested parties to engage attorneys to take up the cause of abused elderly persons.” (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15600(j).) Our San Francisco financial elder abuse attorneys have successfully pursued many causes of action under § 15657.  

The Act was further amended in 2004 to expand the definition of “abuse” to include elder financial abuse. Previously, the Act had only applied to “fiduciary abuse,” which is a much narrower category of behaviors. Under Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 15610.30, “financial abuse” of an elderly adult occurs when the perpetrator: 

  • Takes, secretes, appropriates, obtains, or retains real or personal property of an elder for a wrongful use or with intent to defraud, or both.
  • Assists in taking, secreting, appropriating, obtaining, or retaining real or personal property of an elder for wrongful use or with intent to defraud, or both.
  • Takes, secretes, appropriates, obtains, or retains, or assists in taking, secreting, appropriating, obtaining, or retaining real or personal property of an elder by undue influence.

Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code Section 15657.5 now permits interested parties pursuing civil causes of action for financial elder abuse to obtain punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs in financial elder abuse cases.

Pursue a Claim for Financial Exploitation With Help From a San Francisco Financial Elder Abuse Attorney

The elderly in California today enjoy significantly strengthened legal protections than those of previous generations, including the ability to pursue civil actions for financial abuse and exploitation. For more information about pursuing a claim under California law, please contact a California financial elder abuse attorney at the Evans Law Firm, Inc., by using our online contact form or calling 415-441-8669 or toll-free at 1-888-50EVANS (888-503-8267).

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