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Adult Children and Domestic Violence

Adult-Children-DV-300x200While the vast majority of domestic violence cases occur between spouses, domestic partners, or dating partners, there’s an often-overlooked version of domestic abuse that can be particularly harmful: when adult children become physically violent toward their parents. This type of domestic violence often falls into the category of “elder abuse” under California law, but it can also be classified as regular domestic violence, in part because the legal definition of “domestic violence” in California includes not just abuse between spouses and intimate partners, but also abuse between certain family members who live together. Let’s take a closer look at this troubling form of domestic violence to see what we can learn.

A Spike in Cases

According to research, approximately one million older adults are victims of domestic violence each year—and in about forty percent of those cases, the abuser is an adult child of the victim. During the recent quarantines of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these numbers likely rose significantly as many grown children came home to shelter in place. One study estimates that incidents of abuse toward older people increased by as much as 84 percent during the pandemic–meaning that approximately 1 in 5 older people suffered some type of abuse during this time. Not all of these incidents were perpetrated by adult children, but if the normal percentage (40 percent) holds steady, it still amounts to a staggering number of adult children committing domestic violence against the parents who were attempting to shelter them.

Why Do Adult Children Abuse Their Parents?

There may be many reasons why an altercation between an adult child and their parent may become violent; there certainly is no one-size-fits-all explanation. However, researchers have been able to loosely categorize adult children perpetrators into three categories, and these categories often include the motive for which an adult child might become violent. These categories include:

  • Hostile adult children—children who have an extended history of animosity toward their parents, whether because of abuse, neglect, or other reasons. These are likely to strike their parents simply out of a consistent, simmering anger toward them.
  • Authoritarian adult children—children who see themselves as caretakers of their aging parents and tend to express this in a domineering sense. They tend to feel obligated to care for their parents’ needs yet have no sense of empathy for their parents. In these cases, the violence may stem from a place of resentment or an overinflated sense of control.
  • Dependent adult children—children who are financially, emotionally, or otherwise dependent on their parents. These adult children often live at home (or frequently move back home), tend to be unmarried and/or underachieving, and can be passive-aggressive. In such cases, the abuse may stem from latent resentment over their state of dependence.

Elder Abuse or Domestic Violence?

There are times when abuse perpetrated by an adult child may be charged in California as elder abuse rather than domestic violence. The State of California actually recognizes elder abuse as a separate crime from domestic violence, although there is some overlap between the two. While domestic violence encompasses mostly physical or emotional abuse occurring between intimate partners, elder abuse is a broad term that can refer to any type of harm inflicted upon someone over the age of 65 by a caregiver, family member, or another person in a position of power or authority. Elder abuse can also be financial, emotional, sexual, or even neglectful–not just physical abuse.

It’s important to note that elder abuse and domestic violence are not mutually exclusive categories–an act of elder abuse can also be an act of domestic violence, and vice versa. While some incidents of adult children abusing their parents may fall more squarely into the category of elder abuse, others may be better classified as domestic violence–and on rare occasions, the defendant could face both charges. It ultimately depends on the specific facts and circumstances of each case. For example, an adult child attacking their parent is more likely to be charged with elder abuse if:

  • The parent is aged 65 or older;
  • The child is the primary caregiver for the parent;
  • There are repeated instances of alleged abuse; and/or
  • The alleged abuse extends to other categories besides just physical violence.

Does It Matter What You’re Charged With?

If you find yourself arrested on suspicion of physically or emotionally assaulting one of your parents, how you’re ultimately charged can have a huge impact on your case as well as the defense strategies your attorney may employ. While California tends to penalize both domestic violence and elder abuse more severely than other forms of assault, there are at least two important differences between the two crimes.

A domestic violence conviction often involves some measure of rehabilitation; elder abuse does not.

Domestic violence cases often encourage or require the defendant to attend anger management classes, receive therapy, or undergo rehab for substance abuse as a way of rehabilitating them. In many cases, these measures can occur as part of probation in lieu of jail time or as part of a lighter sentence. With elder abuse convictions, these options are fewer and less likely; you’ll more likely simply be sentenced to jail or prison.

The possible penalties for domestic violence are often less severe than those for elder abuse.

While both elder abuse and domestic violence may be charged as misdemeanors or felonies, most incidents of domestic violence are charged as misdemeanors unless the injuries are particularly severe or there are repeat instances to account for. On average, a conviction for first-time misdemeanor domestic violence results in probation and mandatory counseling, with a maximum sentence of one year in jail. (Felonies can result in up to 4 years in prison.) For elder abuse charges, it’s more likely that you’ll be charged with a felony, and almost certain that you’ll face harsher penalties. This is largely because victims of elder abuse are considered more fragile and vulnerable than intimate partners.

If you have been accused of committing violence against one or both of your older parents, the consequences of a conviction could be severe. You need experienced legal counsel to help you navigate the difficult road ahead and ensure your rights are protected. Call to schedule an appointment today.

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