Protecting Wisdom Keepers — Elder Abuse in Tribal Communities


Brett Larson Staff Writer

Bonnie Clairmont, a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and Victim Advocacy Program Specialist with the Tribal Law and Policy Institute, gave presentations in all three districts in June on the topic of Elder Abuse.

At the District III presentation at the Lodge in Hinckley on June 20, Bonnie was introduced by Elder Abuse Advocate Dave Stumpf and Kevin Brennenstuhl of the National Criminal Justice Training Center in Appleton, Wisc.

Bonnie shared her story about being raised by her grandmother in St. Paul and working for decades as a victim advocate. She talked about how pre-colonization values prevented Elder abuse in Indian communities, but with the disruption of Native cultures it has become a widespread problem.

“It should be all of our business to look after all of our Elders,” said Bonnie. “There’s so much of that denial, sweeping it under the rug, as with domestic violence or sexual abuse. People don’t want to deal with it.”

Elder abuse can take many forms: financial abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect. Of these, Bonnie said neglect, financial abuse and exploitation are the most common.

One prevalent form of abuse is unreasonable imposition on an Elder’s time, such as leaving children in the Elder’s care for an extended period. Neglect can include denial of food and medicine, companionship or bathroom assistance.

Those at highest risk include Elders who have recently be- come dependent, those with memory loss or dementia, and those living with caregivers who are overburdened, chemically dependent or psychologically disturbed. Women are also at higher risk than men, Bonnie said.

Often the perpetrator is a family member or other caregiver.

Signs of abuse include unusual or unexplained injuries, unkempt appearance, pressure or bedsores, confinement against their will, dehydration, fear, anxiety, depression, helplessness, hesitation to talk openly and sudden change in finances.

One study estimated that there are over a half million abused Elders in the country, and that three-fourths of abuse cases go unreported.

The reluctance to report abuse is one of many barriers that make it hard to address the problem. Others include shame and embarrassment, the fear of implicating a family member, taboos against discussing sexual abuse, fear of social services or other authorities, fear of confrontation and the inability or unwillingness to recognize abuse.

Bonnie led the group through several scenarios, asking if each one should be reported. Her main point was that it’s best to report when you suspect something in order to let the professionals conduct an investigation.

“We want to become investigators, to make sure it’s happening before we report,” she said. “But that’s dangerous”
— not just for the potential victim, but also for the would-be “investigator.”

Bonnie concluded her presentation by calling on tribes to make Elder abuse prevention a priority by allocating resources to build programs and facilities to care for Elders in a traditional cultural setting.

She talked about the importance of honoring Elders by involving them in education programs, language preservation and other meaningful activities, and she asked those in attendance to advocate for culturally appropriate services.

Bonnie’s presentations were made possible in part by the National Criminal Justice Training Center of Fox Valley Technical College, which works with tribes to strengthen tribal justice systems and promote collaboration.