Fast Facts

Researchers estimate that as many as 1 in 10 older U.S. adults are abused each year. This includes physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, financial scams, and neglect. It can occur at the hands of family, guardians, caregivers, or others.

The Department of Justice has investigated and prosecuted cases of elder abuse, provided training and grants, and taken other actions to combat it. However, DOJ has not developed goals that could help guide these efforts.

We recommended that DOJ develop and document elder justice goals and outcome measures to better guide its elder justice efforts.

Examples of Scams Commonly Committed Against Older Adults in the U.S.

A graphic showing different types of scams and fraud

A graphic showing different types of scams and fraud

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has established several efforts to address elder abuse, including neglect and exploitation, but its planning and assessment of its elder justice efforts are limited. For example, DOJ has established several working groups and in accordance with the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act (EAPPA)—enacted in October 2017—designated an elder justice coordinator in each of its 94 U.S. Attorneys' Offices. In addition, DOJ provides training and educational materials on elder justice topics for its own staff, as well as state and local officials, and also offers grants to state and local entities that can be used to address elder abuse.

Despite these efforts, DOJ has not developed and documented goals (e.g., enhancing coordination with state and local officials) that articulate the common outcomes it seeks to achieve through its elder justice work. DOJ also has not developed outcome measures that track the agency's progress on its overall elder justice efforts, for example, a means to measure if its coordination practices have been useful and relevant over time to state and local officials. DOJ officials stated that they do have goals, and noted that one of them is to comply with EAPPA. However, implementing the requirements outlined in EAPPA is not a goal that articulates a common outcome that the agency is seeking to achieve through its efforts. Developing and documenting goals and outcome measures, which is consistent with both leading practices and internal control standards, would assist with DOJ's planning—providing direction for what it seeks to achieve—and its assessment of overall effectiveness.

The Department of State has a number of policies and procedures to assist all U.S. citizens arrested abroad, including older U.S. citizens, and the Department of Homeland Security conducts some arrest investigations abroad. For example, trained Department of State staff at overseas posts and in Washington, D.C. provide emergency and non-emergency services to U.S. citizens arrested abroad, such as visits to the place of detention and medical assistance. They also take actions to ensure that U.S. citizens arrested abroad are treated humanely and fairly. In December 2018, the Department of State revised its policies by adding “elderly prisoners” to the list of special arrest cases, or cases that may require additional attention. The Department of Homeland Security investigates arrests in foreign countries of U.S. citizens, including older U.S. citizens, who were tricked into smuggling drugs by international criminal enterprises.

Why GAO Did This Study

Researchers estimate that as many as 1 in 10 older adults in the United States—age 60 or older—experience abuse each year. Elder abuse may involve physical, sexual, emotional, or financial abuse or neglect. It can occur by family, guardians, or caregivers as well as by strangers and international criminal enterprises, which operate schemes for monetary gain or to facilitate other criminal activities. According to media reports and congressional testimony, some older U.S. citizens who have traveled abroad have unwittingly participated in illicit activities, and in some cases, have been arrested in foreign countries.

EAPPA included a provision for GAO to review elder justice efforts in the federal criminal justice system. This report examines (1) the ways DOJ works to address crimes against older adults, and to what extent DOJ is planning for and assessing its efforts; and (2) how the Departments of State and Homeland Security address the arrest of older U.S. citizens abroad, including arrests involving international criminal enterprises. GAO reviewed agency policy documents, and interviewed agency officials, as well as a nongeneralizable sample of elder abuse stakeholders and state and local officials selected for their experience in this area.

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Recommendations

GAO made two recommendations related to developing and documenting goals and outcome measures for DOJ's elder justice work. In its response, the agency outlined steps to address the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Justice 1. The Attorney General should develop and document goals that explain the common outcomes DOJ seeks to achieve through its elder justice efforts. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In its comments on a draft of our report in May 2019, DOJ did not explicitly state whether or not it concurred with the two recommendations we directed to the department, but stated that it is taking our recommendations under serious review. Specifically, DOJ stated that it planned to form a subcommittee within its Elder Justice Working Group to consider the development or clarification of goals and the development of outcome measures. In a follow-up response dated December 17, 2019, DOJ noted that the subcommittee had been formed, and had met to explore the development of additional---or clarification of present---goals, including those referenced in our report. In April 2020, DOJ provided a link (https://www.performance.gov/justice/APG_justice_3.html) to information on DOJ Agency Priority Goal "Prevent and Disrupt Transnational Elder Fraud." DOJ's steps show promise, but additional work remains. In naming the prevention and disruption of elder fraud as an Agency Priority Goal, DOJ has articulated the common outcome that it seeks to achieve through its elder justice efforts, and thus addresses recommendation 1. However, the performance measurement documents DOJ posted on the Agency Priority Goal website outline output measures rather than outcome measures, as recommended in our report. Output measures track the direct product or activity delivered by a program, and outcome measures track the progress the program is making toward achieving its goals. As DOJ works to develop outcome measures, we recognize that it may be necessary to adjust the goals that the elder justice efforts seek to achieve so that the outcome measures can appropriately measure progress.
Department of Justice 2. The Attorney General should develop and document outcome measures to track the progress the agency is making toward achieving its elder justice goals. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In its comments on a draft of our report in May 2019, DOJ did not explicitly state whether or not it concurred with the two recommendations we directed to the department, but stated that it is taking our recommendations under serious review. Specifically, DOJ stated that it planned to form a subcommittee within its Elder Justice Working Group to consider the development or clarification of goals and the development of outcome measures. In a follow-up response dated December 17, 2019, DOJ noted that the subcommittee had been formed, and had met to begin developing and documenting appropriate outcome measures that can better track the Department's progress on its overall elder justice efforts. This will include consideration of the specific suggestions cited in our report, as well as exploring opportunities for additional data collection to enhance the Department's efforts and better measure outcomes. In April 2020, DOJ provided a link (https://www.performance.gov/justice/APG_justice_3.html) to information on DOJ Agency Priority Goal "Prevent and Disrupt Transnational Elder Fraud." In early September 2020, GAO documented that DOJ's Agency Priority Goal page had been updated to include performance measurement documents associated with the Agency Priority Goal, however, the documents outline output measures rather than outcome measures, as recommended in our report. Output measures track the direct product or activity delivered by a program, and outcome measures track the progress the program is making toward achieving its goals. We will continue to monitor DOJ's efforts towards implementing this recommendation.

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