They are members of a group that no one would want to join. But they are growing in numbers and political influence.
They are the daughters, sons, spouses and other relatives of vulnerable adults who have been physically or emotionally abused at senior care facilities across Minnesota.
In recent weeks this coalition, known as Elder Voice Family Advocates, has emerged from obscurity to play a central role in early efforts by the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton to reform Minnesota’s troubled system for responding to violent crimes and other forms of abuse in senior homes.
Over the past year, its members have blanketed Minnesota legislators with letters, e-mails, phone calls and testimonials highlighting their stories of anguish, including incidents in which loved ones have died, been maimed or traumatized as a result of maltreatment. Last spring, as lawmakers considered budget increases to keep pace with escalating complaints of maltreatment, members of Elder Voice made repeated trips to the State Capitol to describe crimes that were going uninvestigated and unresolved.
Their grass-roots efforts gained new urgency after the publication last month of a five-part Star Tribune series chronicling breakdowns in the state’s handling of elder abuse investigations. The report prompted a chorus of legislators to demand reforms, and Dayton this week called for a special work group to quickly produce recommendations for the 2018 Legislature. Elder Voice was chosen to help lead the work group — a remarkable feat for a volunteer-driven organization that still funds its activities by passing a hat at meetings.
“We feel the gentle hands of our loved ones pushing us forward,” said Jean Peters, one of a half-dozen Elder Voice members who met with Dayton’s top staff on Friday. “Our job is to channel the anger and the sadness that many of us still feel into positive change for vulnerable seniors across this state.”
Bright orange socks
Elder Voice’s increasingly political role has come as something of a surprise to the group’s founders.
The idea for the group came out of a meeting nearly two years ago between Suzanne Scheller, an attorney from Champlin, and Peters, at a forum on elder justice. At the time, Peters had just discovered that her 85-year-old mother had been emotionally abused and ridiculed by a nurse’s aide at an assisted-living facility in Edina.
Over coffee, the two discussed their shared frustration at how hard it is for relatives to get even basic details of abuse incidents from state investigators or the facilities where the abuse took place. They discussed forming a group — the only one of its kind in Minnesota — focused on providing support to family members of abuse victims and improving quality of care at senior homes.
Within weeks, however, Peters and Scheller found themselves entangled in a policy debate over the use of hidden cameras in senior homes. Peters and her sister, Kay Bromelkamp, had used a miniature camera to detect the abuse of their mother; Scheller strongly believed that such devices could deter abuse. When legislation was introduced in 2016 that would enshrine the rights of Minnesota families to use electronic surveillance, Peters and Scheller rallied other relatives to testify in support.
As word of Elder Voice spread, people began traveling from as far away as Bemidji and Red Wing to attend the group’s quarterly meetings in Champlin and Minneapolis. Others called in from Iowa, Wisconsin and even Ontario. What began as a support group small enough to fit in Peters’ Minneapolis living room soon had to hold its meetings in Twin Cities community centers.
Before long, members of the group who only recently had been strangers found themselves traipsing to the State Capitol to testify and attend hearings together, often in distinctive orange clothing to match the group’s tangerine-colored logo.
As a further show of solidarity, the group’s leaders have taken to wearing orange socks emblazoned with the figure of a woman flexing her biceps and the words “Give ’em hell.”
As a result of the group’s outreach, lawmakers last spring directed the Office of the Legislative Auditor to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the state Health Department’s process for investigating maltreatment complaints. That review will be completed in January.
“The issue resonates and it resonates very quickly,” said Scheller, the elder abuse attorney. “Everyone knows someone in their family affected by elder abuse and neglect.”
Left in the dark
Robin Roberts, a real estate agent who lives in New London, Minn., is among the group’s newest members.
Like many in Elder Voice, she came to the group in a state of despair — but determined. In late October, Roberts was called into a meeting and told matter-of-factly that her 81-year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, had been a victim of “inappropriate sexual touching” by a male resident at her assisted-living facility. She was told that the incident had been reported to the Minnesota Department of Health, which investigates abuse. However, when Roberts asked for more information, she was told that all details would remain confidential until the state completed its investigation.
“At first, when you learn that something this horrific has happened to your mother, you feel helpless and alone,” Roberts said. “You start reaching out for anything — anything, anything that will effect change, because the laws as they are written now are stacked against the families.”
The group’s legislative agenda for 2018 is decidedly ambitious. It includes changes to the criminal code that would enhance penalties against abusers of vulnerable adults; changes to state law that would grant victims’ families access to abuse investigation reports; the creation of a separate licensing system for assisted-living facilities; and the establishment of minimum staffing ratios in senior care facilities, among other priorities.
Elder Voice is also among a handful of consumer-oriented groups, including Minnesota AARP and the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, that are part of Dayton’s new elder-abuse task force. They have until late January, before the 2018 Legislature convenes, to develop recommendations designed to improve the health and safety of 85,000 Minnesotans who live in senior care facilities.
“We know this is going to be a long-haul effort,” said Elder Voice president Kristine Sundberg. “But we’re tenacious and we’re not going away.”