WASHINGTON (AP) _ Citing the growing problem of abuse of the elderly, the Senate Aging Committee chairman wants criminal background checks for nursing home workers and expanded powers for the government.
``We have an obligation to protect the fastest-growing segment of the population,'' Sen. John Breaux, D-La., said before proposing his legislation Monday at a hearing on financial exploitation of older people.
Breaux's panel was hearing stories of a man who fell prey to a young woman who feigned a romantic interest to obtain his home and money; a woman victimized by home-improvement con men and an elderly man whose new male friend drained his bank account.
Breaux's bill is the product of an expansive investigation that found increasing and widespread abuse of the elderly and concluded that as many as four out of five such crimes have gone unreported.
Recent surveys indicate that well over a half-million abuse cases a year are reported to state adult protection agencies. State officials are the primary protectors of the elderly, and still would have that role under the legislation.
Breaux said part of the problem is that there is no federal worker whose full-time job is to protect seniors from abuse. ``We found out no one really is in charge of this area,'' he said.
His plan would:
_Create new offices in the Justice and Health and Human Services departments that would help conduct the background checks, coordinate government programs, issue reports and aid in training law enforcement.
_Require long-term care facilities to immediately report suspected crimes to law enforcement, with fines for noncompliance ranging up to $100,000.
_Mandate criminal background checks for all staff members in long-term care facilities.
_Make facilities receiving federal payments give a 45-day notice to regulators before shutting down and abandoning residents.
_Seek training of bank personnel to recognize when something is amiss in an elderly person's account.
_Create a federal information center on elder abuse, with a Web site to educate the public.
Carl Fiosche, 79, of Tacoma, Wash., described in an interview how a young woman who befriended him in a bank parking lot began to visit regularly, said she wanted a romantic relationship and started asking for money.
``I wasn't thinking clearly,'' said Fiosche, a retired state real estate investigator and lifelong bachelor. ``She said she would take care of me the rest of my life.''
He gave the woman about $70,000 and signed over the deed to his house, which he is now trying to recover in a civil lawsuit. Fiosche moved to an assisted-living facility.
Bill Blevins of Fairfax, Va., became a self-taught expert in elder abuse after learning that a cousin, 72-year-old Vaughn Blevins, turned over his life savings to a man who hung around places where senior citizens gathered to pass the time.
``He somehow gained his confidence and access to his bank account,'' Bill Blevins said. ``He talked my cousin into giving him a series of loans for his business. He then began forging some of the checks. He began to dominate this person and controlled every aspect of his life.''
Blevins said he tracked down payments worth $270,000 to the man.
Gertrude Gingerich, 72, of Hartly, Del., answered her door to men offering to fix her leaky roof. One of them, an elderly man, identified himself as the father of one of the workers, and convinced Ms. Gingerich they were reliable.
The workmen charged $4,850, said Gingerich's niece, Catherine Boyle, who later found the workers simply sprayed driveway tar on the roof.
Gingerich eventually told her niece, who contacted authorities. Police had Gingerich call the men back to the house, using a cellular number they left. Officers were waiting when they arrived and arrested one of the workmen. Gingerich's money was refunded.
``There's not going to be a next time,'' she said.
Studies indicate elder abuse is growing, with 41.2 million Americans aged 62 or older counted in the 2000 census.
Joanne Otto of the National Association of Adult Protective Services Administrators said a nationwide survey by her group in 1990 found 470,000 reports of elder abuse during a one-year period.
A survey now under way has tallied 375,000 instances over one year, with only 24 states reporting so far.
Organizations that represent most of the nation's long-term care facilities said they would not oppose more federal regulation and specifically support criminal background checks. They said, however, they reimbursement for any expenses.
Jane Brady, Delaware's attorney general, said her state already has instituted some of the aging committee's proposals.
Over the past three years, 588 people in Delaware were rejected for jobs as providers to the elderly after criminal background checks, she said.
The state has voluntary agreements with banks that allow notification of authorities if elderly customers seem disoriented or when patterns change in use of their accounts.