ASTORIA, Ore. — An elderly woman with dementia in a Lake Oswego assisted-living facility had no idea her only living relative, a niece in Seaside, was stealing $350,000 from her.
Instead of making payments to the assisted-living facility and pharmacies, the niece, who controlled her aunt’s finances, used the money on her own home improvements and to purchase a Mercedes-Benz sports car. The niece told investigators the purchases were what her aunt would have wanted. By the time a police investigation began, the aunt had died.
Investigators had to pore over financial records with help from the aunt’s friends to successfully prosecute the niece, who is now on probation and required to pay back the money.
“There are many cases I’ve reviewed that I haven’t been able to take to prosecution,” Clatsop County Deputy District Attorney Dawn Buzzard said. “This one, it was obvious she was only supposed to use the money for her aunt’s good.”
With elder abuse cases, law enforcement and social service workers face major hurdles that are not often seen in other crimes. Victims, such as the elderly Lake Oswego woman, die or have cognitive issues that make them unaware of the abuse. Records that might help prove financial abuse are not always easily released from banks. Most of all, victims may not want to report a family member or their only caregiver.
For every case reported, authorities say, five are not.
‘It’s their choice’
Steve Hawks, an adult protective service worker through Northwest Senior and Disability Services, is tasked with investigating elder abuse in Clatsop County.
His job is to investigate whether an incident occurred, file a report and offer social services to the victim. He works closely with law enforcement and others in his Warrenton office and headquarters in Salem.
He can strongly recommend a victim move into a foster home, assisted-living facility or accept in-home care, but the largest hurdle is that the decision is up to the elderly person.
Unlike with child protective services that can remove a child from a home, an adult has the right to make their own decisions. If an adult loses their cognitive ability to decide, it us up to a guardian or conservator.
“I can’t remove an adult from a home under any circumstance. Sometimes I would like to, but I can’t,” Hawks said. “It’s their choice.”
Last year, Clatsop County had 224 reports of elder abuse. Hawks was assigned to investigate 133 of them. Just in January this year, Hawks has already investigated 20 cases.
More than 38,000 elder abuse cases were reported statewide in 2014, up from about 30,000 in 2013.
Hawks said he has not seen an increase in cases, but more complicated cases.
“I see more of a trend of complex cases, especially financial exploitation,” he said. “We have a lot of retired seniors here with some wealth. Their cases tend to be more complex.”
The most common referrals Hawks receives are for cases of self-neglect. The reports usually come from concerned friends, family, Medix personnel or police officers.
Hawks said the perception of self-neglect is being disheveled or not taking baths, but it is actually about cognition. He asks people if they understand not bathing or having moldy food in their refrigerator can be harmful. Hoarding is another example of self-neglect.
“I had to climb up and into (a hoarder’s house),” Hawks said. “It was not a pleasant experience when I looked at what I crawled through to get to where the person was sleeping in the middle of everything.”
When a scam is reported, it is assigned to Hawks as self-neglect. Since adults have the right to spend their money anyway they wish, scams are not considered financial exploitation.
By investigating a scam as self-neglect, Hawks asks victims if they understand what they are doing. As an example, he will ask if they really think they will receive a check for $2 million from a lottery they never entered.
The Oregon Department of Justice has been a huge resource in combating scams, Hawks said.
Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum in January hosted a first-ever elder abuse conference. The state Legislature is considering funding Oregon’s first full-time elder abuse prosecutor.
Unfortunately, Hawks said, once an elderly person gets involved in a scam it can become similar to a gambling addiction.
“Even with all of that education, they will continue,” he said. “I wish I could tell you we have had great success with victims of scammers, but I can think of several where they are currently involved in them.”
Astoria Police Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said most elder abuse cases in Clatsop County involved scams or other financial exploitation similar to the case in Lake Oswego. Forgery or fraud calls to Astoria Dispatch have increased from 58 in 2012 to 163 in 2015.
“It’s far more complicated now,” Halverson said. “A person can be anywhere in the world doing this. Actually being able to track it back and get to the source of it is very hard.”
Scams and financial exploitation prey on a victim’s trust. Victims are left feeling embarrassed and ashamed, which can lead to them not wanting to report the crime.
“We see financial crimes more often than we do physical abuse, but that’s not to say there is not physical abuse as well,” Halverson said.
Some detectives and officers around Clatsop County carry a pocket guide for legal issues related to elder abuse. The pocket guide includes definitions for the different types of elder abuse.
Police officers, doctors, nurses, social workers, attorneys, and many other professionals are mandatory reporters of elder abuse. They can face penalties for not reporting an incident.
Law enforcement is taught to look out for certain types of injuries. A common assault injury to the elderly is black eyes. Hawks said he comes across a sex abuse case once or twice a year.
No matter the type of elder abuse, Hawks said, his response comes down to whether the victim wants him to proceed. He will visit a victim months after an initial report. He offers services and recommendations, but it’s the person’s choice to seek further help.
“I have to be ready, emotionally and mentally, for walking away or being able to put something in place right then,” Hawks said. “Those are the sad ones, when I know I’ll be back.”
Prosecuting the niece in Seaside would likely not have been possible without the aunt’s dedicated friends. One was an accountant, and another was a lawyer.
One friend described the process as a full-time job. The friends and a Lake Oswego Police detective visited multiple financial institutions to piece together the evidence. They knew they needed a well-documented case to get a prosecution.
The allegations of theft and criminal mistreatment spanned five years, dating to 2009. The stolen money, meant for Catholic charities after the aunt died, has since been sent to the charities.
Prosecutors say the case shows the importance of watching out for the elderly, and the positive impact of people’s being willing to step in.
“It took me a while to get over my shock,” a friend said. “I couldn’t believe anything like this would happen.”