06/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Abuse Lasts Past Mother's Day

Mother's Day is over for another year, but there's a hidden problem with many of our mothers that just goes on and on. Take the case of Ruth, an 89-year-old woman who was in fairly good health when she entered an Iowa nursing home for physical therapy in 2008. When she left to go home 25 days later, Ruth's leg was rotting and consumed by gangrene. She died three months later. State and federal officials rightly called it neglect, and fined the nursing home $112,650.

The nursing home owner is of course contesting the ruling. He runs a lobbying organization and is complaining about the fine to Iowa legislators, accusing the inspections department of "flogging" nursing homes and blocking seniors' access to care by imposing huge fines.

Ruth's case, highlighted in the Elder Abuse: A Women's Issue, the annual Mother's Day report being released today on Capitol Hill from Older Women's League (OWL), is by no means an isolated one. Domestic and institutional elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation cause serious harm to anywhere from 500,000 to 5 million individuals in the United States every year. Females make up approximately 66% of the victims. That means up to 3 million older women are battered, beaten, swindled, or neglected by relatives and so-called caregivers.

It's a problem that has been recognized since at least the 1980s. But twenty-five years of congressional hearings on its devastating effects have produced no federal law to address the problem in a comprehensive manner, even though elder-battering has been called both a disgrace and a "burgeoning national scandal." Despite continued efforts, one by Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, the Elder Abuse Prevention Act of 2006 and the Elder Justice Act of 2008 failed to pass under GOP control of Congress.

Even without legislation, one would think our national institutions might be addressing the issue. Not so. Adult Protective Services, the front line responder to elder abuse under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, does not have a federal office, federal standards, oversight, training, data collection or reliable funding. What's worse, there is not a single federal employee working full-time on elder abuse in America.

In late March, the Elder Justice Act was introduced as S. 795 again by Senators Hatch and Lincoln (D-AR). In addition, Senator Kohl (D-WI) reintroduced his Patient Safety Act as S. 631. Both bills await action in the Senate Finance Committee. Meanwhile on the House side, its version of the Elder Justice Act was introduced by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) as H.R. 2006 in mid-April.

Overall prospects for final action on the Elder Justice Act are promising due to the Obama Administration's expected support. Let's hope so. Otherwise, the states will continue to craft a hodge-podge of laws and regulations, meaning the safety of elderly women is subject to geography and the lobbying power of corporate nursing homes.

OWL's report documents the need for comprehensive elder abuse prevention laws -- using the models of prevention for violence against women and child abuse. It's about time. It's about our mothers.