Guest Editorial: Kane Elder Death Review Team expands

By on June 23, 2011

by Christopher Nelson
Public Information Officer
Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office

As the population of residents over age 60 grows in Illinois—and in the United States—so has the opportunity for the abuse and neglect of seniors.

In response to the growing population of citizens 60 and older, evidence of abuse and neglect of seniors and the belief that collaborative oversight to appropriately protect vulnerable seniors was systemically lacking, Kane County in 2007 launched the Elder Fatality Review Team, a local interagency group designed to ensure that suspicious deaths of the elderly would be thoroughly examined and evaluated.

In reviewing the deaths, the team sought to determine if the deceased was the victim of abuse or neglect prior to death, and if abuse or neglect played a role in their death. If so, the panel determined what remedies should have taken place and how to ensure that those remedies are not overlooked in future cases, whether locally, statewide or both.

Based on its success and a need to involve more agencies, the team will expand to DeKalb and Kendall counties, and change its name to the Tri-County EFRT. As a result of its work the last four years, the Kane EFRT saw an opportunity to expand to DeKalb and Kendall counties because many of the cases it has examined crossed into those jurisdictions.

“The Elder Fatality Review Team has been very beneficial for various agencies to better evaluate whether a senior was the victim of abuse or neglect prior to death, whether abuse or neglect was a factor in their death, what the signs were of the presence of abuse or neglect, what could have been done to prevent it, and in some cases helping to evaluate the appropriateness of criminal charges,” Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon said. “However, the EFRT isn’t as much about determining criminal action as it is about ensuring that agencies are collaborating to share information so that suspicious deaths are thoroughly evaluated, systemic changes are made and in the long run seniors receive proper care and treatment.”

Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis said, “We have an obligation to do what we can to protect our seniors. As our population ages, we must work to reduce the risk of victimizing an entire generation of Americans. I welcome the Elder Fatality Review Team to Kendall County, and I believe that its work will help implement positive changes in our efforts to bring those who harm our seniors to justice.”

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Clay Campbell said, “DeKalb County is privileged to join forces with Kane and Kendall counties to create the Tri-County Elder Fatality Review Team. This united commitment allows our counties to pool precious resources and expertise to develop strategies focused on the prevention and investigation of elder abuse. Our goal is nothing less than the utmost protection and safety of our senior citizens throughout the region.”

The Kane EFRT, which includes representatives from government and nonprofit social service agencies, was created to address systemic deficiencies in the identification and prevention of elder abuse and neglect. A case came to light within the coroner’s and state’s attorney’s offices regarding an elderly widow who died. After her body was cremated, information surfaced that the woman had been victimized by a family member, and that the woman had a history with an elder abuse agency. Those facts led some to question whether the woman could have been the victim of abuse or neglect, and even whether her death involved criminal activity. However, because no process existed at the time for various health and elder agencies to work collaboratively, her abuse was not known until after her death.

That lack of a tangible evaluation process meant that a viable means to improve the system also was lacking. Although certain agencies did have an evaluation process, an inability to share information with each other was identified as a barrier.

The case of Jane, as she is referred to by those familiar with her case, became a rallying cry to seek changes that would allow multiple agencies to share information in such a means that when abuse and neglect is found, the remedy is a more cohesive and collaborative response.

That launched the Kane County EFRT and its mission, which is to identify whether systems that have the purpose or responsibility to assist or protect elder vulnerable adults were sufficient for the particular circumstances or whether such systems require adjustment or improvement.

The team reviews suspicious deaths of persons age 60 and older who reside in domestic living situations, such as with family, caregiver or board and care home. Suspicious deaths may include deaths that resulted from blunt-force trauma or an undetermined manner. Death reviews also may take place as requested by an attending physician or referral from a health-care provider or law-enforcement agency in a case that involved suspected abuse, neglect, self-neglect or financial exploitation.

“Society, appropriately, has systems in place to identify and report child abuse and domestic abuse,” said Linda Voirin, Seniors and Persons with Disabilities Victim Advocate for the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office. “But we are lacking an interagency approach to tackle elder abuse. We are working hard to change that.

“Our intent is not to be intrusive, and confidentiality is key. We would like to see seniors aging in place, and aging in peace,” Voirin said.

Ultimately it is the desire of the cooperative entities that by carefully examining these fatalities and implementing necessary system changes, the resulting outcome will lead to improvement in the response to elder victims of abuse and prevent similar outcomes in the future.