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California battles an AAPI elder abuse problem

California is experiencing a rise in elder abuse among Asians. But cultural taboos and a lack of language resources have left survivors caught in the revolving door. We spoke to several activists and community organizers to understand the problem and possible solutions.

Illustrator: Dizzy Doan. Composed as a poster for the #RAISEAMILLION event.

The racist dubbing of COVID-19 as the “China virus” provided an insight into the United States’ long history with prejudice towards Asian Americans. The subsequent rise in hate crimes against the community, including the recent Atlanta spa shootings, painted a bleak picture, but this is hardly a new development.

Since its inception in March, Stop AAPI Hate received over 2,500 reports of anti-Asian attacks across the country. 7.5% of these came from elders. A 2018 report by the Administration for Community Living reported that “Asian Americans made up 4% of the older population.

By 2060, the percentage is projected to be 8%. ”With this kind of growth, one thing was clear: elders who are Asian American and Asian immigrants are not only at higher risk of abuse but also more susceptible to being trapped in these toxic environments for longer periods than most other ethnic groups.

The reasons for their prolonged suffering point towards cultural taboos and lack of language access, given that a significant number of Asian American and Asian immigrant elders are monolingual. According to this publication’s analysis of Adult Protective Services’ records of LA County, elder abuse in the Asian community increased by 12.3% in the fiscal year 2019-20, compared to the same time period a year earlier.

Sunhee Kim, the domestic violence program manager of Korean American Family Services, spoke specifically of the tightly-woven Korean family structure contributing not only to the muffling of survivors but also to their subsequent shunning as social pariahs should they speak up. “These acts of violence are very embedded in Korean culture. There is not a lot of support from their community, not because the survivors did something wrong but because of lack of awareness, even though there is an improvement from almost a decade ago,” said the LA-based outreach worker. “There is always a justification: ‘maybe they did something wrong to deserve this’, ‘they should stay on to keep the family together’, and so on.” Furthermore, the National Center of Elder Abuse (NCEA) in their report titled Mistreatment of Asian Pacific Islander (API) Elders, even stated that in several Asian communities “filial piety is an important cultural value.”

The Los Angeles Police Department, whose jurisdiction covers the City of LA, reported frequent increases in service calls pertaining to elderly and dependent adults with average daily highs of six calls ever since the lockdown in mid-March. Kim informed this publication that survivors are afraid to call for help since they are now confined to their homes where their abusers monitor them closer than ever. But the blending of expectations as an immigrant in America must also be considered in the treatment of those suffering. Kim drove this point home when she pointed out the lack of language access in law enforcement agencies like the LAPD when they arrive on the scene to assist victims of elder and domestic abuse. In spite of empathetic female officers, barriers in communication form with Asian American survivors since many of them do not speak English. The police force rarely has officers who can then mitigate the problem. 

Tactically, the LAPD’s handling of daily service and emergency calls makes a big difference when it comes to issues like domestic violence or elder abuse. “The victims are usually women and that automatically puts you in a position of empathy,” said Detective Marie Sadanaga, the head of the domestic violence unit. “When I just listen to the victims, they feel that I believe what they’re saying, as opposed to a male cop.”

But even with the disproportionately larger count of men, the department’s arrest data presented a startling picture. Female officers made almost 16.74% more arrests for domestic violence than their male counterparts, within their respective gender groups, an analysis of the LAPD’s 2019 arrest data found. With daily service calls for elder and domestic abuses suspiciously winnowing in spite of hitting a record high at the start of the pandemic-induced lockdown, the need to hire more female officers became imminent until calls for defunding the police gained steam amidst the Black Lives Matter movement. But the lack of language and translation access among cops seems to suggest that community-based groups may be more effective in curbing the problem.

Stop AAPI Hate collaborated with the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action to announce that within three months 11.2% of all COVID-19-related crime reports they received from California had Asian American elders as victims. This is especially worrying since Los Angeles County had the largest Asian population (1,716,196) in 2019, as well as the largest numeric increase of 11.7% in the population from 2010 to 2019, according to the United States Census Bureau

“Reports of elder abuse have been on a steady increase not only in LA County or California but the nation as a whole,” said Michael Kapp, the Director of Public Affairs for Los Angeles County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services (WDACS). Kapp attributed the escalation to the growth in the aging population, better awareness and understanding of the elder community to report the calls in the first place, and because elders are seen as “easier targets of abuse” for financial fraud. In fact, financial abuse is the most common kind of oppression inflicted upon elders because the losses are difficult to recover, according to Julie Schoen, the Deputy Director of the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). “It’s very rare if the funds are recovered via insurance. It’s a loss that’s hard to solve,” she said. Schoen mentioned that her organization noticed the first spikes in elder abuse earlier in 2019 when the housing crisis hit the nation, and more adults were moving back in with their parents.

Experts in the community highlight the shallow pool of resources that are available to survivors of elder abuse. Compared to resources to curb domestic violence, elder abuse outreach is much more narrow. The problem is exacerbated in Asian communities due to language barriers. While this is a recurring problem in California and LA County, Molly Davies, the Vice President of WISE & Healthy Aging sees this as a national problem. “Almost every LAPD division has a response team for domestic abuse but the same doesn’t exist for elder abuse. If they do have such resources then other key factors like therapists and social workers are missing,” she said. In fact, Davies’s organization is the only one in LA County that is in an operational agreement with a police force. They are co-located with the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD), which means that WISE & Healthy Aging have a desk of their own set up in the precinct on the Special Victims Unit floor. Davies’s team is alerted about calls to the LBPD regarding elder abuse through referrals, and their team of social workers, family counselors, and clinical advocates usually approach the survivors separately from the police. But these resources are scant, even if well-intentioned. WISE & Healthy Aging’s partnership with the LBPD means that they can mostly only serve constituents of the city and some surrounding areas, not the county as a whole. “There are very, very few wraparound services in LA County and California as a whole,” said Davies.

One of the few groups focused on legal aid for Asian American and Asian immigrant elders is API Legal Outreach (APILO), which has offices in San Francisco and Oakland. Monica LaBoskey, their Managing Attorney, threw light on the revolving door monolingual survivors get stuck in. The outreach program works towards getting civil restraining orders against abusers if required. But the cycle towards procuring it is triggered by the granting of the Emergency Protective Order (EPO) by police forces. LaBoskey informed that the EPO is written based on “that one or two officers’ interaction” with generally the English-speaking person in the household they responded to. “Often, we know because of the power dynamic and because of the immigrant communities we work with, it’s the abuser who speaks in English and not the abuser. The entire cycle is based on the report in English without any input from the person who has been abused. It’s a real problem,” she said.

Moreover, it’s not often where cases of elder abuse are taken to the court of law. “The sense of taboo and duty to family is so strong in Asian communities that survivors don’t want to put their family, who in spite of being their abusers are still their loved ones, through that stress,” says Esther Leong, APILO’s Administrative Director. Leong believes this social conditioning must be challenged. “We conduct sessions with survivors and their families where we discuss the importance of speaking up,” she said. “These sessions have to be conducted in other languages too,” said Junko Kenmotsu, a case manager of the organization who converses with clients in both Japanese and English. Their staff speaks eight languages across the board — English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Spanish. Clients who speak other languages are directed to partner groups like Asian Women’s Shelter

But Asian American elders are not the only community who feel the wrath of language and cultural barriers. The conundrum gets further convoluted when Asian immigrants enter the picture. In their case, survivors are often at the mercy of their abusers who control their visa and duration of stay in the country. In some cases, the roles are reversed and the abuser wants to be in control of their situation. This is where legal programs like APILO come into play. LeBoskey and Kenmotsu threw light on the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) through which they can help immigrant survivors change their status to that of a self-petitioner because they were abused. “Interestingly, a lot of the domestic violence calls that we get involve victims who are elders. So the two intersect,” said LaBoskey. Kenmotsu stated that their priority is the survivor even if the abuser is visa-dependent.

The solution all these groups have in mind? Multi-disciplinary teams. They tackle complications arising out of oft-forgotten intersectionalities. Usually, the team comprises a physician, a pharmacist, a nurse, respiratory therapy, social service, and if applicable the patient and/or their family member. Multi-disciplinary teams are appointed with the aim of catering to the multiple variables arising out of a patient’s health problem. Julie Schoen recommended this as an alternative to the current system where law enforcement agencies and community outreach groups work separately. To cater to the needs of elder abuse and domestic violence survivors of ethnic minorities, Schoen suggested the inclusion of translators and a few other personnel. “They are very complex, multi-layered cases and it takes a community to help,” she said. “We need a lawyer who can read the power of attorney, we need law enforcement to investigate, we need a forensic accountant to determine the amount of money that has been taken. We cannot expect law enforcement to know all these things. I really do think this is a very promising model.” 

Despite the fraction that Californian lawmakers cut from police budgets, the coffers of law enforcement agencies are still on the brink of overflowing. Groups like the APILO and WISE & Healthy Aging believe redirecting funds is the answer. “The police have funding and a lot of it. There is a lot more we can do if we had that. We can do more prevention, mediation, and negotiation,” said APILO’s LeBoskey. Esther Leong criticized the lack of police training too. “It’s not simply a domestic issue, we need big commitment in terms of really resolving this. We need to meet with police department heads quarterly and hold them accountable,” she said. “You can have the money, but you need to train your staff and have the right kind of people. Those things depend on who is in office. We prefer real people: staff who can actually speak the language(s) instead of mere language lines.”

Diminished funding also affects the number of legal services available to non-English speaking elders and other clients who depend on outreach programs that are usually nonprofit agencies. According to a State Bar of California study, only 4% of attorneys in California work for nonprofits.

Molly Davies thinks that inadequate funding can cut outreach programs at their knees. She mentioned that her organization in partnership with the California Elder Justice Coalition (CEJC) had been trying for years to get the California Victim Compensation Board to include funds for the financial exploitation of older adults. But the board only grants funds (to pay for services like funerals and psychotherapy) to victims of violent crimes. “They denied our requests because they thought it would be too expensive,” Davies said. One of her organization’s funding streams is a grant offered by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. But the level of funding is not meeting the increasing demands. “The funds have been life-changing for our clients, but we do need more coverage. This is not just an LA or a California problem, but a national problem,” she said. Davies also mentioned that these finances keep supportive services alive. “Walking elders through all the paperwork is a complex process, and even more so when they do not speak English. The more funding we have, the more people we can equip to handle such cases.”

But these practitioners and advocates of the multi-disciplinary system also recognize the value of law enforcement agencies. Schoen, Kim, and APILO’s staff attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow Jeremy Chan all elucidated on the importance they play in data collection and record-keeping. Filing crime reports build the statistic on elder abuse. They become valuable resources by recording trends and highlighting the gravity of the problem. “Many of the remedies that we provide to clients rely on the police system. Restraining orders, for example, are only as powerful as the police enforce it,” said Chan.

Chan is piloting an alder abuse mediation project at APILO in order to better address alternatives to legal and court-based remedies like the restraining order. A reason for its ineffectiveness is that family members often assume a caretaking role for senior citizens. “The senior may be reliant on their abuser for food, medicine, shelter, social contact, and so. This may make the senior less likely to seek help,” he said. In the mediation project, the alternative is not to get a restriction order but to facilitate a conversation with the opposing party. Chan believes this model uniquely works in cases of elder abuse because the family dynamics are different from a domestic violence case, which is a partner-on-partner crime. 

Bulbul Rajagopal
Bulbul Rajagopalhttps://bulbulrajagopal.contently.com/
Bulbul Rajagopal is a data and investigative reporter with a special interest in minority issues, soccer, and politics. Her extensive coverage in India and Los Angeles rewarded her with an affinity for crime reporting. During her downtime, Bulbul enjoys exploring her passion for food and its cultural impact amongst other things.
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