Sexual violence against elders is not traditional in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Indeed, sexual violence against elders was virtually unknown at the time of first contact with Europeans. Traditionally, Native elders have been seen as repositories of knowledge and as invaluable community resources prized for their experience and wisdom. Many Tribes, Villages, Rancherias, Communities, and Pueblos continue to hold elders in high esteem as a valuable link to their past and as a resource for future generations.
Native communities typically define elders as those persons 50 - 55 years of age or older. Nationally, non-Indian organizations and legal codes commonly define an “elder” as a person who has reached the age 60 or 65 and older.
What is Sexual Abuse Against Elders?
Sexual abuse against an elder includes non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly person. Sexual abuse includes, but is not limited to, unwanted sexual touching, contact, intercourse, sodomy, coerced nudity, and sexually explicit photographing.
Who are the perpetrators and what are the causes of Sexual Abuse?
Adult children and caretakers are most likely to be the perpetrators of elder sexual abuse. Spouses, other relatives, and grandchildren are also likely to be the perpetrators. Some tribal social service providers have estimated that close to 80% of those abusing Native elders are immediate family members and that 10% of the abusers are extended family members.
Elder abuse, like intimate partner violence, can arise from an abuse of power and a sense of entitlement by the abuser. Some researchers have found that caregivers who are unhappy, frustrated, easily angered, and who feel entitled to lash out at others with less power may be more likely to commit some extreme forms of elder abuse.
Native people have also listed alcohol abuse, substance abuse, and a turning away from traditional cultural values as the root cause of elder abuse. Historical trauma and the horrors (including significant sexual and physical abuse) of the boarding school experience may also play a role in the rise of sexual abuse of elders.
Female elders are sexually abused at a significantly higher rate than male elders. The oldest of the elderly are also at a higher risk for abuse. Those 80 years of age or older are abused and neglected at two to three times their proportion of the elderly population. Physical frailty and inability to care for oneself are also risk factors. Close to half of substantiated incidents of abuse and neglect involve elderly persons who are unable to care for themselves.
More than 79% of all elder abuse cases go unreported. Sexual abuse crimes against elders are reported even more infrequently. Physicians and health care providers are often the persons most likely to make reports of sexual abuse. Other persons in tribal communities who are likely to report sexual abuse include law enforcement officers, friends, clergy, neighbors, family, and other community members.
Adult Protective Services and tribal law enforcement should be notified immediately in cases where elder sexual abuse is suspected. If no Adult Protective Services program exists in the Tribe, state Adult Protective Services agencies may be contacted to provide services for the elderly victim. Adult Protective Services may be able to place an elder in temporary shelter and/or create a plan of care to ensure continued safety and well-being. Unfortunately, domestic violence shelters are often not equipped with the resources or training necessary to respond to the safety and health needs of elderly victims.
Civil and Criminal Proceedings
A report of sexual abuse may trigger both criminal and civil proceedings in tribal courts. Civil proceedings in elder sexual abuse cases may include protective orders, guardianship proceedings, and conservator proceedings. Tribes may criminally prosecute Indians who commit elder abuse on tribal lands. Non-Indians who commit acts of elder abuse may be tribally prosecuted by a VAWA 2013 compliant tribe provided the victim was an intimate partner, former intimate partner, or in a former dating relationship with the defendant.
Challenges for Tribal Communities Combating Elder Sexual Abuse
Tribal leaders have identified three major challenges in addressing elder sexual abuse:
A lack of codes addressing elder sexual abuse issues.
A lack of policies and procedures for tribal agencies handling elder sexual abuse issues
A need for increased training on elder sexual abuse, abuse, and neglect.
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