Thomas Berrigan never
dreamed he'd reach retirement age and end up being a prisoner in
his own home. Most of his possessions have been either stolen or
vandalized, his trailer home has been burglarized repeatedly,
and he is afraid to leave in the morning and to return home at
night. He is desperate to move away but can't afford it.
Is he a victim of
gangs? Local thugs? Vicious, drug-crazed criminals?
No--he is the prisoner
of a vindictive, mentally unstable ex-wife, her adult children,
and a legal system that prejudges him guilty and her innocent.
"If I call the police,
she'll say I attacked her," he says. "If I try to defend my home
and come near her, she'll scream, call the police and I'll go to
jail as a wife-beater. Her children will corroborate anything
she says. I have nowhere else to go. I'm stuck."
According to the
National Center on Elder Abuse, elder abuse has risen sharply
over the past decade and a half, and less than one in 10 cases
of elder abuse are actually reported to authorities. Neglect is
the most common form of abuse, comprising roughly half of all
cases, followed by physical abuse (15 to 20%), emotional abuse
(15%), and property destruction, theft, or financial
exploitation (10%). The most likely abusers are adult children
and spouses. Adjusting for the greater number of elderly women,
men and women both abuse and are abused in equal proportion.
There are many
different elder abuse scenarios but, according to researchers
Karl Pillemer and David Finkelhor, one of the more common ones
is an elderly man being abused by his healthier (and perhaps
younger) wife, or by a second wife, who often abuses with the
assistance or complicity of her adult children.
Berrigan's ex-wife, whom he married
a decade ago and recently divorced, knows that he is trapped and
is thus able to operate with impunity. She broke-in to his
trailer home while he was away and destroyed the papers he needs
to get his veterans' benefits. She stole most of his clothes and
other possessions. She stole his phone bills and the keys to his
daughter's house, and leaves threatening messages which hint
darkly about his grandchildren.
She tells everybody in their small
desert community that he's harmed her and tries to incite them
against him. Berrigan, a deeply religious man, is afraid to go
to his own church--afraid that she may be there, jump in front
of him as he walks in or out, fall down, and scream "help"!
With the help of his daughter, Berrigan was able to get a
restraining order against his ex-wife, but it is of limited
value because he is still very hesitant to call the police.
Activists say that
Berrigan's problem is anything but rare. According to attorney
Marc Angelucci, California chairman of Stop Abuse for Everyone
(SAFE), often men like Berrigan are "among the most defenseless
people in our country. Even though countless studies show that
there are plenty of women who commit spousal harassment and
abuse, our courts and criminal justice system are reluctant to
recognize it. Police are under tremendous pressure to protect
women and arrest male ‘batterers', whatever their age. The law
in practice often doesn't protect these men and stands ready to
jail them on the word of the women who victimize them."
When an elderly man's
health has deteriorated to the point where the police could be
convinced that he is actually the victim, men still often decide
not to report their abuse. According to author and men's
advocate Warren Farrell:
"Many elderly men who
are abused by their wives report their wives' anger at their
failure to be useful--as a breadwinner or as a home-repairer.
The man has gone from protector to needing protection, and that
is a set up for her anger. The man's shame and dependency often
prevent him from reporting his wife's abuse."
Berrigan is one of the
lucky ones, because his abuse is not physical, at least not yet.
Ken Hedrick, a retired firefighter, is less fortunate. He has
been repeatedly assaulted by his wife of five years, who attacks
him by surprise, often using kitchenware and household objects
as weapons. Even though he worked his whole life until he
reached retirement age, part of what fuels her rage is his
diminished retirement income and the fact that she, 10 years his
junior, has to work.
When they're both home
he spends most of his time in a separate living quarters in the
garage and tries to avoid angering her. Sounding exactly like a
battered wife, he speaks in a soft voice while I interview him
on the phone, listening for signs that his wife may be coming
home. Today, she is enraged at him over her car accident, an
accident which occurred while he was not even there. He says
he's afraid to leave her because it may enrage her further, and
there aren't any shelters that accept men near him. He has
documented evidence of her abuse over the past five years but
doubts that authorities would believe him. And call the police?
"Absolutely not. I've
no doubt that she could go in front of any cop, judge, or jury
and accuse me of being the abuser and cry and lie and have them
ready to hang me."