Elder Abuse: Hidden Epidemic

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2017 16:49

Meet Ann, Tuolumne County’s “court support dog.” The 3-year-old Labrador retriever works with the D.A.’s Victim-Witness Program. One of her jobs: sit on the witness stand with people testifying in abuse and other cases. “It’s amazing the calming impact she has,” says Ann’s handler, Advocate Christine Miller.

The call came one early December morning to the Sonora home of Bob and Shirley Winnley.

When Shirley answered, an urgent voice on the other end of the line said, “Hi, Grandma, this is Keith (one of the couples’ five grandsons).”

Keith said he had gotten into trouble and needed money for bail. This “grandson scam” is a common gambit by scammers targeting older adults. When it was over, the Winnleys had been taken for $2,000 – and nearly much more.

“The program was well-rehearsed … plausible,” Bob says.

“Smooth,” adds Shirley.

Winnley is a pseudonym. Both in their late 80s, the couple asked to remain anonymous because, Bob admits, “I don’t want people to think I’m stupid.”

The Winnleys are anything but – he’s a retired educator and she was an administrative assistant.

The situation raised several red flags for the couple, but the scammers – the fake Keith and another man posing as a bail bondsman – placed them under severe time pressure and had a believable answer to each question.

Bob says they were given “very specific instructions” on how, when and where to obtain and transfer the money, and wound up buying $2,000 worth of iTunes gift cards and reading the card numbers to the bad guys over the phone.

They were about to buy $4,000 more after the scammers – confident the Winnleys’ concern for their grandson outweighed their suspicions – upped the ante by saying Keith had been fined by a judge.

At that point, the Winnleys reached Keith’s mother – after earlier attempts failed – and learned that Keith was at home in his room, studying for an exam. When the fake bondsman called back for the $4,000, says Bob, “I told him it was time to get lost.”

The Winnleys hurried to their bank, but were told their $2,000 could not be recovered because it had been classified as a gift – per the scammers’ instructions – thus fraud laws did not apply.

The experience produced mixed feelings for the Winnleys: relief that Keith was safe, and embarrassment over falling for the scheme.

“You think of a hundred things that should have alerted you,” says Shirley.

“We’ve talked about ‘How dumb could we be?’ but that’s a fait accompli,” Bob says.

Mostly, the Winnleys do not want others to be victimized.

Says Bob: “Any time you get a phone call asking for money …”

Shirley finishes the thought: “… don’t send any money; don’t accommodate them in any way.”

The Winnleys have joined the ever-growing ranks of elder abuse victims in the Mother Lode. Half the region’s residents are 50 or older – one-fourth are 65 or older – making this area a prime target for scammers, exploiters and abusers.

Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties together are home to more than 36,000 people 65 and older. Nearly 10,000 of them live alone. And more than 17,000 are 75 or older, state statistics show. Each of the counties except Alpine ranks in the state’s top seven in terms of elder population percentage.

Nationwide, financial abuse of older adults is costly to individuals and families; estimates range as high as $36.5 billion. But as prevalent as financial fraud is, neglect and emotional abuse may be even more common, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.

In almost 90 percent of elder neglect and abuse incidents “with a known perpetrator,” family members are the abusers – most often adult children or spouses, the National Council on Aging reports.

The problem hits very close to home. In Tuolumne County, an adult son tried to strangle his widower father to death after the father asked the son to move out. An adult daughter bilked her widowed mother out of her $250,000 life savings. Both perpetrators pled guilty and received state prison sentences. Some 60 more cases are being investigated here, likely a small fraction of actual elder abuse cases given the large number believed to go unreported.

Concern is growing along with the problem, so much so that the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s office last year applied for and won a $437,500 grant from the California Office of Emergency Services to help elder abuse victims.

With the grant money, awarded to only 19 of 120 applicants statewide, the office established the Elder Victim Advocacy Program and the Tuolumne County Elder Abuse Task Force. Other partners include Tuolumne County Adult Protective Services (APS) and the Mother Lode Office of Catholic Charities. The mission: provide outreach, advocacy and education to elders and dependent adults, with collaboration from many other agencies.

APS offices and law enforcement handle cases in the Mother Lode at large, while Catholic Charities focuses on 18 skilled-nursing and residential-care facilities in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Mariposa counties through its Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, active since the early 1990s.

The DA’s advocacy program is directed by Ginger Martin, who runs the county’s Victim-Witness Program. “Before the grant, law enforcement had to initiate cases,” Martin says. “Now our advocates can do that. Now we have enough staff to investigate suspicions. First, we identify if an elder actually is a victim, then we offer them a variety of wrap-around services.”

“The collaboration is huge,” says Catherine Driver, director of Catholic Charities’ Mother Lode office.

For a crime to be categorized as elder abuse, victims must be 65 or older. Tuolumne County’s new advocacy program also provides services to victims between 55 and 65 and to developmentally disabled adults, Martin says, though such cases would not fall under elder abuse statutes.

Elder abuse cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, she adds. Victims die, decide not to testify against a family member or a caregiver, or suffer from medical problems like dementia that make it hard for them to testify.

Here are some key questions and answers about a problem experts say affects millions of Americans each year but often goes unreported.

What does elder abuse mean? It is “an intentional act, or failure to act, by a caregiver or another person in a relationship involving an expectation of trust that causes or creates a risk of harm to an older adult,” according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The American Psychological Association identifies seven types of elder abuse: physical, financial, emotional, sexual, abandonment, neglect and self-neglect.

Who is most at risk? “The isolated,” Martin says. “When you’re disconnected from your community, you’re at higher risk.”

How big is the problem locally and nationally? Martin says her office has 60 cases in progress, a 59 percent increase in three years, which she attributes to improved outreach and awareness, and better training for advocates and law enforcement. Nationally, one in 10 elders will experience some type of abuse, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, with nearly 2.2 million cases reported annually.

Which types are most common in the Mother Lode? “Financial exploitation,” says Kathi Toepel of Common Ground Senior Services, a nonprofit serving Amador and Calaveras counties. “And self-neglect (behaviors that threaten his or her health or safety) is big here.”

How many cases go unreported? Only one in 14 cases is reported, the NCEA estimates. California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform puts that number at one in 23.5. “It’s a hidden crime,” says Kathie Butler, one of three new advocates in Tuolumne County’s grant-created program.

Why don’t victims report abuse? Key reasons include a victim’s mental state, fear of retaliation, and desire to protect the perpetrator – the elder still loves an abusive child, for example, and does not want to get him or her in trouble, Martin explains. Also, notes Toepel, elders mistakenly fear they will be removed from their homes by APS.

“APS cannot remove an elder from his or her home if they have capacity to make their own decisions,” she says. “The elder has to agree with the services.”

Is the problem expected to grow? Authorities predict it will expand along with the 65-plus population, which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates will double in California from 4.2 million in 2010 to 8.5 million by 2030.

What are some warning signs of abuse? Injuries, withdrawal from normal activities, change in behavior or financial situation, poor hygiene, unattended medical needs, and strained or tense relationships are potential signs, according to the California Department of Social Services.

Which financial scams are most common? Imposter, health care, Internal Revenue Service, lottery or contest scams. The Federal Trade Commission warns: “When the IRS first contacts you about unpaid taxes, they do it by mail, not by phone,” and that, “No government agency will ever ask you to wire money.” (For more, read attorney Tamara Polley’s column, “Estate Planning: Guard Against Financial Fraud”.)

Will different scammers call the same person? “Once (older adults are) hit, they become multiple targets,” says Debbie Schug of the Area 12 Agency on Aging. “Crooks sell to each other the phone numbers of elders who have been scammed … and they’re getting smarter.”

How can you avoid becoming a victim? “Stay connected to your community,” Martin says. “If something feels uncomfortable, find somebody you feel safe with and talk to them about it.”

Top tips to prevent fraud? From Butler and Martin: Develop a good relationship with your bank, never give out credit card or bank account information on the phone, and when something doesn’t feel right, “listen to your instincts.”

How can neighbors help? “Stop by … reach out,” says Sgt. Anthony Eberhardt of the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office. “Don’t just wave at your neighbor, but get to know them – and not just them, but their family members. Know who’s coming and going. It’s not about being the nosy neighbor. Take a little bit of ownership and responsibility. Reach out and call the sheriff’s office if you’re suspicious.”

“Share your knowledge,” Catherine Driver advises. “If you learn or see something, talk to that person; encourage them to speak for themselves. Sometimes all it takes is someone sitting right next to them.”

“There’s a responsibility from the community to check on them if you suspect abuse,” says Butler. “Just knock on their door.”

Where to find help

Anyone who suspects elder abuse should call Adult Protective Services. If abuse is suspected in a skilled-nursing or senior-residential facility, call the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program.

Those who believe they are being scammed should contact a police or sheriff’s department. Cases can progress to a district attorney’s office for possible prosecution.

All numbers are in the 209 area code unless otherwise noted:

Tuolumne County Adult Protective Services (APS), 533-5717, 533-4357; Elder Victim Advocacy Program, 588-5440; Sheriff’s Office, 533-5815; Sonora Police Department, 532-8143.

Calaveras County APS, 754-6452 or 1-800-464-4079; Sheriff’s Office, 754-6500; Angels Camp Police Department, 736-2567.

Amador County Social Services, 223-6550; Sheriff’s Office, 223-6500; Jackson Police Department, 223-1771; Sutter Creek Police Department, 267-5646; Ione Police Department, 274-2456. (Monthly prevention meetings are held by the Senior Peer Visitors Program and Isolated Seniors Task Force; call the Amador Senior Center, 223-0442.)

Mariposa County APS, 742-0900 or 966-7000 (crisis hotline); Sheriff’s Office, 966-3615.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program For cases of suspected abuse in skilled-nursing or senior-living facilities in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and Mariposa counties, call 532-7632.

Senior Medicare Patrol Fraud Hotline, 1-855-613-7080 Scams or suspected scams may also be reported to this program funded by the federal Administration for Community Living. The patrol can refer cases to the Department of Justice.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2017 16:49
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