Families are frustrated. When someone thinks a person is taking financial advantage of an aging parent, the public message is an urge to report to Adult Protective Services, or equivalent. APS, sometimes called by other names, is a local government entity tasked with investigating complaints about elder abuse and neglect. After I hear families describe their distress over the abuse itself, they complain of another frustration. No prosecution of the perpetrator happens.
The crime of financial abuse of elders is rampant and growing. People are living longer and they become more vulnerable with age. An older, perhaps forgetful person is an easy target. Why isn’t law enforcement going after the perpetrators?
At AgingParents.com where we consult with elders and their families, we regularly hear about financial abuse. We always ask if the family has reported the matter to APS. Often they have. Sometimes I report it myself, complete with evidence, witnesses, etc. In the last 15 years, not one case I know was reported or that I personally reported has ever been pursued by the District Attorney in my own county.
Lack of Enforcement
Law enforcement will pursue a variety of crimes against elders, particularly if the elder is high profile or massive sums are involved. But for the ordinary dad who got ripped off by the caregiver, the District Attorney may have no interest. There has been a long-standing misperception among some D.A.s that financial elder abuse is not their territory. In my own state, California, there was even a policy in some offices that these crimes were not to be pursued. In other words, they didn’t just ignore it, they were officially supposed to ignore it.
The reasons for purposeful ignoring of a crime are unclear. However, the law is very clear. The specifics of the crime of taking money or property from an elder are spelled out and are punishable. One possible explanation for law enforcement’s unwillingness to charge these cases as crimes is that they think the families affected can go to a civil court on their own, and that is good enough.
The Error In Thinking That A Civil Case Will Be The Remedy
It is true that sometimes the same action can be both a crime and a civil offense. Think O.J. Simpson: he was charged with murder (and acquitted). He was also sued in a civil case for the same matter in what is called “wrongful death”. He lost that case and had a money judgment against him. That can happen in elder abuse cases too.
The laws about elder abuse vary from state to state but there is a general recognition everywhere that it is a crime to steal, especially from an older person who may be more vulnerable. And yet, some APS workers and some DAs simply tell the family of the victimized elder that they should go sue the abuser. “It’s a civil matter” is their excuse. And it is not a valid excuse. One can’t always sue the abuser nor get anything out of doing so.
First, the family of the victim has to pay an attorney for the expense of a civil lawsuit. That is a barrier in itself as many people can’t afford the high cost of an attorney. Second, the criminal often takes all the elder’s money and spends it, so there may be nothing to get out of a lawsuit. There are exceptions, such as when an abuser takes an elder’s home or property. That can potentially be gotten back but in many cases there is nothing at all to get back in a civil case. The result of a criminal case can be jail and/or a fine and having to pay back ill-gotten money. In a civil case, the only helpful result is getting the money back.
Are Things Changing?
I see hope for change in my own state. Education grants provided for nonprofit organizations to educate District Attorneys are supporting the motivation to pursue enforcement of the crime of financial elder abuse. The investigators from APS and the DA’s offices need information to increase their willingness to do what needs to be done. It is time that victims and their families had the sense that financial abuse of elders will be aggressively prosecuted in every state, according to the criminal law of each state.
If you have concern that someone in your family is being financially victimized, you can get professional guidance about your options at AgingParents.com. Call 866-962-4464 today or make an appointment at AgingParents.com. Take action to stop these wrongs against our elders! Not ready for action? Get our free blogs at our website too!
Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, AgingParents.com