A potential “third alternative” to help meet the needs of abused elders, through the intervention and rehabilitation of elder abuse perpetrators.

SEAM Program Brochure courtesy of Lifespan of Greater Rochester

Joe targeted older adults with a scam to complete work on their homes and then did not finish the jobs. Cory pushed his father down while shopping. Katherine taunted and videotaped residents of the skilled nursing facility where she worked.

These are all real-life examples of elder abuse from a new program that aims to change the behavior, beliefs, and attitudes among elder abuse perpetrators. This groundbreaking program is modeled along the lines of domestic violence intervention programs for batterers. Over the course of 11 weeks, Stop Elder Abuse and Mistreatment (SEAM) at Lifespan of Greater Rochester is designed to help offenders increase their knowledge of elder abuse and accept personal responsibility for their actions. It also seeks to help them identify healthy attitudes about aging and new behaviors that support an elder’s ability to thrive and prevent future abuse and mistreatment.

Founded in 2002, SEAM is based on the premise that a significant percentage of elder abusers do not have a mental or behavioral disorder and would benefit from an educational and rehabilitative program. SEAM seeks to provide an alternative means of intervening in elder abuse and mistreatment situations that otherwise may be handled by social service agencies or law enforcement. The one-of-a-kind program — it has yet to replicated elsewhere, staff say — is based on the Batterers Intervention Program (BIP) model for domestic violence offenders. That model seeks to understand the dynamics of domestic violence, hold perpetrators accountable, and work with police and courts to intervene on behalf of the victims. Using BIP as a starting point, SEAM added issues common in elder abuse to the program’s curriculum such as the “Entitlement Triangle,” which examines motives behind committing abuse.

The vast majority of participants come to the program via court order or from the New York Attorney General’s office after pleading guilty to non-violent crimes that may include financial exploitation/larceny, neglect, harassment, simple assault, and verbal abuse. Many of the group participants have been sentenced and mandated to attend the program. Others have sentencing on hold while awaiting results of their participation in SEAM, and their sentence is contingent on their successful program completion. 

As part of the onboarding process, SEAM staff work with referral sources, courts, and lawyers to track and identify participant mental health and substance abuse issues that could interfere with group participation. Group facilitators also screen and interview potential participants. Those who are health professionals (health aides, nurses, etc.) often are banned from working again with older adults; however, family members not subject to “no contact” Orders of Protection may resume care-giving for their relatives.

SEAM runs two 90-minute groups per year in Rochester and the greater Monroe County area with up to six participants each. Sessions include weekly check-ins to review case studies and discuss abuse. Each group session also begins with facilitators asking participants if they engaged in any elder abuse behaviors since the last session. Sessions also cover education topics that range from the aging process, emotional/psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect to medication tampering, among others. Full participation is mandatory.

            “The participants are not allowed to minimize their actions; however, there is no judgment tolerated when discussing their behaviors,” said Jennie Militello, a facilitator. “Accountability is key, as they have been charged with a crime, but detailed exploration of their actions, choices, and options are provided.”

To successfully complete the program, participants must pass several assessments to screen for underlying disorders. They must demonstrate that they have gained insights about their criminal behavior and accept responsibility without minimizing or rationalizing their behaviors. Additional questionnaires measure their knowledge of older adult issues and appropriate responses.

To date, about 50 to 60 participants have successfully completed SEAM over 16 years, and an estimated 5 percent have re-offended, according to Art Mason, director of Lifespan’s elder abuse prevention program. (Recidivism data is scarce, Mason says, and adult protective services caseloads are reviewed every six months to update records.)

While studies have raised questions about the effectiveness of batterers programs in changing attitudes and preventing abuse, Militello said her group members at SEAM have experienced personal growth.

            “The participants I have worked with have demonstrated an awareness of ways to work with the elder population, as well as identified behaviors and responses to situations that are either not helpful or illegal,” she said.

Mason says elder abuse advocates and professionals including the Monroe County Office of Probation, State Attorney General’s regional Rochester office, and 7th District Administration Judge Craig J. Doran have hailed SEAM as a “third alternative” to help meet the needs of abused elders, especially those who may be reluctant to pursue charges against family members that may involve jail time.

            “This program is important to assist participants with accepting responsibility for their actions that led to their involvement in the legal system and to help them to explore alternative behaviors should they face similar situations in the future,” Militello said.

What do you think of this “alternative”? Can you think of another one?

For more information, please contact Art Mason or Melissa Waite, SEAM’s Elder Abuse Prevention Program SEAM coordinator, at (585) 244-8400.

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