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An ambitious public-awareness campaign launched Tuesday aims to put the brakes on abuse and exploitation of Minnesota's growing elderly population.

The MN S.A.F.E. Elders initiative, produced by a coalition of prosecutors, law enforcement officials and other advocates, includes a television documentary, trial notebooks for prosecutors, community tool kits and mobile apps for law enforcement to help spot abuse.

Abuse of the elderly, which can range from physical violence to neglect to financial exploitation, sometimes can be difficult to recognize, especially when it comes to interactions between loved ones. Elder abuse is often committed by someone the person trusts, such as a spouse, child or caregiver, says MN S.A.F.E. Elders (which stands for Stop Abuse and Financial Exploitation of Elders in Minnesota).

"What you have to take a look at is if whoever is acting as a caretaker is acting in [the elderly person's] best interests," said Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, whose office helped lead the initiative.

Each year an estimated 2.1 million elderly Americans are victims of abuse, neglect or exploitation, according to the Administration on Aging, an agency of the Administration for Community Living. The annual financial loss to elderly victims of financial exploitation was estimated at $2.9 billion in 2009, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).

"As people get older they are more vulnerable to either [abuse or exploitation] because of physical decline or cognitive decline," said Kim Dayton, a professor and the director of the Center for Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell College of Law.

Elder abuse has been a sort of hidden problem, Dayton said. Combating it takes on even greater urgency as the elderly population in the United States continues to grow. According to the 2010 census, people age 65 and older made up 13 percent of the total population. By 2050, that number is expected to grow to 20 percent, according to the NCEA.

"As the elder population increases … the problem of abuse and exploitation is going to become even worse," Dayton said.

Tools in the campaign

The 26-minute documentary that is part of the campaign depicts stories of abuse and was a coproduction of MN S.A.F.E. Elders and Twin Cities Public Television. The video is available on the campaign's website,, and will also be aired on television.

The mobile app was developed to help law enforcement officers at the scenes of crimes identify signs of abuse such as types of bruises and financial indicators.

Trial notebooks containing sample complaints and sentencing guidelines are also being provided to prosecutors.

Students at William Mitchell played a large part in the campaign by working on the app development, website content and trial notebooks.

The campaign was funded through about $60,000 in donations from numerous county attorney's offices, senior advocacy groups, health care providers and financial institutions.

Three questions

The initiative teaches that, in trying to recognize possible abuse, you can start by asking three questions: Is someone taking your money without permission; are you afraid of someone, and is anybody hurting you? Some of the warning signs can be unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, unpaid bills and physical injuries.

Dayton said she believes the campaign could have a huge impact.

"I think it will serve as a model for other states," she said.

To mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, William Mitchell College of Law will be hosting a free event on Friday with speakers and presentations to provide more information about how to address abuse. Registration starts at 7:30 a.m. at 875 Summit Av. in St. Paul.

To report elder abuse, call the Senior LinkAge Line at 1-800-333-2433 to contact a county's adult protection office.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495

Twitter: @stribnorfleet