New Program To Detect Elderly Abuse

It was Thanksgiving Day 2004, and 72-year-old Pearl Robertson — known to those who loved her as Mama Pearl — lay dying on the bathroom floor.

Mama Pearl had advanced heart disease, CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella reports. But an autopsy also revealed bruises, a fractured sternum, broken ribs and blood in her lungs.

"She had sustained blows to the chest, and that's what initiated the events that caused her to die," the medical examiner said.

It's a hardly studied and hugely under-reported problem, but of the known cases of elderly abuse and neglect, researchers say 89 percent happen in private homes — and more than half at the hands of children or other relatives.

States are starting to get the word out with public service announcements. Whether it's a grandfather being swindled by his son or an elderly aunt whose relatives are simply too far away to help, there is no typical case. What is typical is that the victims either don't know they're being abused or neglected, or they don't want to believe it.

"A lot of times the perpetrators are family members or people known to the senior, so they don't want to report that because they love their children and they don't understand why they are being so abusive to them or so neglectful of them," Dr. Carmel Dyer says.

Dyer heads a new program at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine, one of only five like it in the country, where doctors, nurses and medical students make house calls to seniors based on reports from Adult Protective Services. A social worker who suspects abuse can call on doctors for a second opinion.

If a doctor suspects a crime, experts from all corners — medical, social services and criminal justice — work through the case together. It's the same kind of approach used to tackle domestic violence and child abuse.

That teamwork helped prosecutor Mark Donnelly prove that CPR didn't cause Mama Pearl's injuries — her son's girlfriend did. She's now serving time for felony assault on the elderly.

"I have no doubt that a crime was committed in this case. If I had felt otherwise, I would have never come close to going to trial on it," Donnelly says.

Mama Pearl found justice. But experts fear that for every case they find, five more go unreported.