By MICHAEL MOONEY
Business Journal writer
The economy may be tapped out, but there’s no evidence that the worldwide recession has led to a slowing down of the physical and-or financial abuse of our nation’s oldest citizens.
Hundreds of elderly abuse cases have been prosecuted in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties over the past five years. But hundreds, perhaps thousands, more of those crimes never get reported.
Many elders are abused by members of their own families, making it difficult to obtain convictions because victims are reluctant to testify against one of their own.
“We’re seeing what we always see,” said Suzanne Schultz, family crimes coordinator for the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office. “An adult child, usually with a drug or alcohol dependency and still living with mom and dad, become abusive in order to get money from their parents.”
Schultz said the abusers often are out of work because of their substance abuse problems and are desperate for money to support their drug or alcohol habit. Others turn to drugs or alcohol after they become unemployed as a way to handle their economic situation.
Eventually, these abusers isolate their parents or other family members – an elderly aunt or uncle – often physically and mentally abusing them while stealing their life savings.
Even in some extreme cases, Schultz said, “parents don’t want to testify against their troubled child.” And without other witnesses or physical evidence, the crime may go unpunished.
“Prevention has to be the name of the game,” said Carol Shipley, Stanislaus County assistant district attorney. “We want to stop these crimes before they happen. It’s very difficult for the elderly to prosecute members of their own families.”
Shipley said her office has assigned three deputy district attorneys to a special victims unit that prosecutes sexual and child abuse cases, as well as elder abuse. A special elder-abuse investigator at the District Attorney’s office recently left Stanislaus for a higher paying similar position in another county.
Due to budget constraints, that investigator has not been replaced.
Shipley said her office believes there has been an up-tick in cases of elderly financial abuse, “we don’t have any documentation to back that up.”
Stanislaus County Adult Protective Services, however, said referrals did increase from 2007 to 2008.
In 2007, Adult Protective Services received 393 financial abuse referrals. That number jumped to 440 in 2008.
Shipley said those numbers do not include second or multiple referrals on open or already existing cases, so the actual numbers are a bit higher.
In San Joaquin County, Schultz said two deputy district attorneys are assigned to elder abuse cases.
“I really feel fortunate that we have two prosecutors here,” she said. “We have a very proactive program.”
It’s not only desperate family members who take advantage of an elderly parent or relative. Older citizens also may be victimized by street criminals and scam artists.
“We see a lot of people targeted because they’re elderly,” said Schultz. “There have been some pretty aggressive robberies this year.”
Schultz talked about one case in which an elder was targeted by some young men. A “Good Samaritan” tried to intervene, she said, and urged the young men stop what they were doing and not to hurt the elderly man they had pushed to the ground.
At that point, Schultz said, one of the young men proceeded to stomp on the victim’s head with his foot. The man survived but was unable to recall the incident or identify any of his attackers.
“I’ve seen the worst of the worst in this business,” said Schultz. “As a community, we need to be looking out for each other.”
In another case, Schultz said a robbery suspect who was arrested after stealing a woman’s purse, said he specifically targeted elderly women.
Other scam artists, using the Internet and telephone contacts instead of their fists or feet, also target older citizens. And the results of such crimes can be every bit as devastating to a victim as a physical assault.
Schultz said her office recently received a call from a man who was worried about his 90-year-old father, who became convinced that one of those “Nigerian” emails – promising untold wealth in exchange for some of your hard-earned cash or vital information such as your bank account and Social Security numbers – was legitimate. The Stockton man began making regular wire transfers, depleting his life savings by sending money to an offshore bank account.
“He (the victim) was sharp as a tack, otherwise,” said Schultz. “Everything else was fine (but) he had no ability to be objective with regard to these wire (money) transfer scams.”
In a similar case, Schultz said the older woman who had been victimized just couldn’t believe it.
The woman had received a document with a Washington, D.C, return address that also featured an official looking American eagle emblem. In the document, she had been told she had won a lottery she never entered. All she had to do was send some money in order to collect her winnings.
“Why would they lie to me?” Shultz quoted the woman as saying. “They don’t even know me.”
Schemes targeting the elderly are seemingly endless – home repairs, construction, roofing, landscaping. In each instance, the “company” representative usually requests money up front. Once you hand over the cash, you never see them again.
Schultz said in one home improvement scam of which she was aware, a man sat on the homeowner’s roof and pounded a hammer. Instead of a new roof, all the victimized homeowner got for his money was the sound of a hammer.
In Stanislaus County, Shipley said her office worked in partnership with other agencies such as Catholic Charities, who offer information and programs designed to stop scams and cons before older citizens are victimized.
Catholic Charities, for example, will pay your monthly bills if you are elderly or infirm.
“You send them the money and they pay the bills,” Shipley said. “They make sure your (money) is used to pay your expenses without the wrong people getting a hold of it.”
Shultz said she is active in the community, too, visiting senior centers and assisted living facilities. She discusses practicalities and provides tips to help seniors avoid becoming victims – everything from not leaving your garage-door opener in your car to “neck” wallets to shredding documents before throwing them away.
“Don’t give out personal information over the phone,” said Schultz, “don’t carry your Social Security card with you; don’t leave your garage-door opener in the car; shred personal documents before throwing them away.”
In short, be careful out there. And remember: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.