When an older American dies due to abuse or neglect, not only has a tragedy occurred, but a particularly heinous crime may have been committed. Because disease and death are more likely as adults grow older, those who investigate suspicious deaths have a particular challenge when it comes to deciding which elder deaths to scrutinize. Based on pilot data and anecdotal experience the research team thinks that crimes resulting in the death of an elder are going undetected. It is clear that more, objective information is needed to understand the scope and significance of this issue. Accumulating valid, reliable information to understand the decision-making process is particularly challenging in part due to the varied practices of data collection and of methods used to determine the initial phase of an investigation. This project addresses these concerns directly. Focusing on the 58 county coroner's offices in the state of California, the investigators will collect and analyze data associated with elder deaths as well as the processes currently employed by each county office to decide whether or not to assume jurisdiction in a case.
The rate of elder homicides resulting from abuse and neglect is unknown and prosecutions are rare. That elders are suffering and paying the ultimate price without benefit of justice is increasingly clear, despite great difficulty in assembling data to support this supposition. According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, women are disproportionately victims of elder abuse. Over the past 10 years, women consistently account for over 2/3 of all elder abuse victims. The proposed study will produce data on suspicious elder deaths on the largest scale to date, encompassing the C/ME offices in 58 California Counties. These data alone will provide significant new insights into the problem and the degree to which it is recognized and addressed
Drawing on the knowledge gained, the final phase will pilot test a brief questionnaire to be used by those who dispatch coroner investigators, evaluating its effectiveness in selecting suspicious elder deaths for further investigation and autopsy.