June 29, 2017 — Angry, not afraid. That’s how one woman characterized her reaction when she realized a polite visitor, attracted by the sight of her evidently disabled husband, had possibly been casing her home.
“My life has changed. I’m not afraid. I’m mad,” she told the district attorney Wednesday, during Region 10’s “No Excuse for Elder Abuse” conference.
Visibly distraught after telling her story, the woman did not provide her name. But even savvy seniors like her — a longtime Neighborhood Watch member — are potentially at risk.
“Elder abuse” is a layperson term for exploiting, neglecting or harming older adults, who because of their age and/or physical and mental condition, are considered more vulnerable.
From a legal standpoint, the terminology is “crimes against an at-risk person,” a category of offenses against people 70 and older, and which also encompasses disabled people (as defined by statute) of any age.
Such crimes include physical or sexual abuse, exploitation, theft and identity theft, as well as neglect.
Other statute has created 21 categories of mandated reporters — people who must report suspected abuse of at-risk adults, which includes caregivers, medical professionals, clergy, and even veterinarians.
An increasing number of crimes against at-risk adults are being reported in the 7th Judicial District, District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said.
The numbers of cases prosecutors filed have more than doubled each year since 2015, when three were filed. In 2016, eight such cases were filed and, so far this year, 10 have been filed. Of the filed cases, eight have entailed assault; 12 have entailed a form of theft and one, against a juvenile suspect, involved neglect.
The filed cases likely do not reflect the amount of elder abuse that actually goes on, as it is a severely under-reported crime.
“We want to prevent it at the beginning,” the DA said. Hotsenpiller later said that, despite the grim statistics and horror stories, people should not be afraid or resigned.
“Walk out of here knowing you have an entire community who wants to help and are doing what they can. The laws are getting much more serious,” he said.
The increase in cases may also be due to more reports and better response, Hotsenpiller said. “I hope so. We’re committed. … We’re trying harder to get these cases reported and to get them prosecuted.”
Region 10’s Area Agency on Aging has begun noticing more instances of elder abuse, long term care ombudsman and director of Community Living Services Eva Veitch said.
In one instance Veitch relayed, an elderly woman’s own daughter allegedly siphoned off $300,000, leaving the victim penniless. And, because the woman’s funds had been misappropriated, she could not receive Medicaid, despite needing to be in long-term care.
On another occasion, a caseworker listened in shock as an elderly woman took a phone call and began reading off her financial information. When asked, the woman said the caller was her bank, which had “lost” her account information and she was helping out. The caseworker was able to immediately contact the woman’s actual bank and prevent fraud.
For Veitch, enough was enough. “When are we going to stop talking about this and do something about this?” she said Wednesday. “Elder abuse is happening under our nose.”
Region 10 launched a four-month awareness campaign, which the Wednesday conference capped off, along with presentations Thursday in Delta.
Crimes against at-risk victims bring more severe penalties because of the victims’ vulnerability and because many times, perpetrators are in a position of trust. The at-risk victims are disproportionately damaged by crimes, more likely to be severely injured in an assault and less able to recover, either physically, or, in the case of fraud, financially.
“They don’t heal as well and also don’t have the ability to go out and earn (new income),” Hotsenpiller said.
Significant damage can be inflicted on an elder, even if the perpetrator didn’t intend to. A punch to the face might stun a younger, healthy adult. Striking or shoving an older adult might cause more injury, even eventually leading to death.
A case filed earlier this year alleges a Montrose man injured a 90-year-old woman in his care at a nursing home. The woman died of her injuries a day after turning 91, but because of the intent component and the burden of proof, suspect Travis Young is charged with assault, and not with an even more serious crime.
Hotsenpiller does not comment on ongoing cases, but did reference the above when explaining how long it can take to bring a case: The woman died in 2014 and Young was charged this year.
Hotsenpiller was blunt: It is often challenging to bring cases of elder abuse to the point of prosecution, because of a host of factors.
The legal system is not “user friendly,” and cases can be prolonged. Additionally, older witnesses may have memory and cognition problems. They may be fearful, dependent on their alleged abuser, feel ashamed, or, as in one recent fraud case out of Delta County, “feel stupid.”
Victims aren’t stupid; they are vulnerable and, in financial crimes, are coming up against often accomplished con artists who play on their sympathy, Hotsenpiller said.
In some ways, elder abuse isn’t any different than the reaction people have to other crimes, but the focus should always be on the offenders’ conduct, he added.
The Delta County witness, a woman in her 80s, who was allegedly defrauded of more than $80,000 through a variant of the “lottery scam,” did not deserve what happened, no matter what she fell for and how many checks she sent, the DA said:
“She should not have been defrauded.”
While the scam alleged in the Delta case is common, the result is rare: A suspect was identified, arrested and brought to Delta from South Carolina to face charges.
Hotsenpiller reported the suspect, Patricia Millidge, was granted a $500 bond at her first court appearance.
Regardless the case outcome, it is unlikely the alleged victim — who overdrew her accounts, thinking the lottery win would help pay for her husband’s care — will get the money back.
Fraud is “not designed to play on people’s intelligence. It’s designed to play on their emotions,” Montrose Police Detective Phil Rosty said later Wednesday, as he went through common fraud schemes.
Recall the Neighborhood Watch member who believes she nearly fell prey.
Her report: Her since deceased husband was in their yard, walking with a cane, when a man approached, saying he was out of gas and also needed to use the bathroom.
Her husband invited the man inside. The woman did ask questions, but was told the man was visiting her neighbors up the hill, relatives of his, one of whom had cancer.
The man spent a lot of time in the couple’s restroom, but before leaving, offered to check their furnace vents as a favor, and walked through the house, including into rooms where there were no vents.
After he left, the woman called the neighbors the man said he was visiting. He was, in fact, family — but he wasn’t welcome and she should not let him in.
“He’ll be back,” she was told.
To protect her husband and prevent the theft of his medication, the woman had a security system installed.
The story points to the fundamental unfairness of crime, Hotsenpiller said: The victims are the ones who have to change their lives.
“These people prey on the best of our human nature,” he said. “That’s why it works.”