Financial Exploitation of Elderly Must Be Addressed

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 7, 2015

 Professor Philip Marshall, Coordinator of the Historic Preservation Program at Roger Williams University in Bristol, entered Room 562 in the Dirkson Senate Building not to testify on historic preservation policy, as he often did, but to share a family tragedy.  Marshall’s testimony detailed how his grandmother, New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, was financially exploited in her later years by his father.

Brooke Astor, a philanthropist, socialite and writer, was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998, for her generous giving of millions of dollars to social and cultural cause.  Marshall, one of four witnesses who came before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging this past Wednesday, would say, that his 105 year old grandmother, who died on August 13, 2007, was considered to be “New York’s First Lady,” and a “humanist aristocrat with a generous heart.”

Marshall, a resident of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, told the panel his mother would never have wanted to be known as “one of America’s most famous cases of elder abuse.”

“Nor did she, while in the throes of dementia, choose to be victimized to be deprived, manipulated and robbed – all as a calculated ‘scheme to defraud,’ as later characterized by the Manhattan District Attorney,” said Dr. Marshall.

Astor’s financial exploitation “may be her greatest, most lasting legacy,” says  Marshall.

In his testimony, Marshall told the attending Senators that after a three-month battle for guardianship to protect his grandmother’s assets, a settlement was reached five days before the court date.  A criminal investigation launched by the Manhattan District Attorney after a potential forgery was referred to his Elder Abuse Unit, would later lead to the indictment in 2007 of his father and a lawyer, says Marshall.

Two years later, after a six-month criminal trial the jury would find Marshall’s father guilty on 13 of 14 counts against him.  All, but one, were held up on appeal.

“While my grandmother’s stolen assets were reclaimed, many elders never reclaim their money – or their lives,” observes Marshall.  “Here, for financial transactions, enhanced detection, mandatory reporting, and greater reporting of suspicious activity will help,” he says.

A Growing Epidemic

 In her opening statement, Senator Susan M. Collins, (R-Maine) who chaired, the Senate Aging Panel’s hearing, “Broken Trust: Combating Financial Exploitation Targeting Vulnerable Seniors,” warns that a growing epidemic of financial exploitation is happening – one that she estimates to cost seniors an estimated $2.9 billion in 2010, according to the Government Accounting Office.

Financial exploitation is a growing problem in Rhode Island, too, notes Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a member of the Senate Aging Panel. “Sadly, this number likely underestimates the cost to victims because older adults often do not report abuse, particularly when it involves a family member.”

Senator Whitehouse noted that this week’s Special Committee on Aging hearing examined the challenges to identifying and prosecuting fraud schemes and highlighted strategies to prevent the financial exploitation of seniors. “There are steps we can take to address this problem, and I strongly support the Older Americans Act, which recently advanced out of the HELP Committee and addresses financial exploitation and other forms of elder abuse,” he added.

“Over the past several years the Rhode Island State Police has experienced a steady increase in the number of complaints of elderly exploitation and larceny from individuals over sixty-five-years, says Colonel Steven O’Donnell, who oversees the Rhode Island State Police.  During the past six years his Agency has investigated 40 complaints amounting to a total loss to victims of over $1,000,000.00.

According to O’Donnell, in 2010, State Police investigated four complaints related to elderly exploitation and/or larceny.  Four years later, 14 complaints were investigated. “These increases may be attributed to the increased computer literacy of willing perpetrators and the increased accessibility to bank accounts online, which provides perpetrators the opportunity to conduct their criminal activity behind closed doors,” he says.

Combating Financial Exploitation

To ratchet up the protection of older Rhode Islanders against financial exploitation, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a bill last year that extends the statute of limitations for elder exploitation from three years to ten years. Kilmartin says the new law, sponsored by retired Representative Elaine A. Coderre (D-District 60, Pawtucket) and Senator Paul V. Jabour (D- District 5, Providence), gives law enforcement officials the necessary time to build a proper case for charging and subsequent prosecution, bringing it in line with other financial crimes.

“The law about financial exploitation is on the books—let’s enforce it,” says, Kathleen Heren, State Long Term Care Ombudsman, at the Warwick-based Alliance for Better Long Term Care. “What a sad world we are in where a senior or a disabled person loses everything they have scrimped and saved for to a greedy individual who, in the majority of cases, is a family member,” she adds.  Over the years she has also seen financial exploitation involving clergy, lawyers, bank tellers, brokers, and “people who you would never suspect would steal from a frail elder.”

“Many people who hear “elder abuse and neglect” [or financial exploitation] think about older people living in nursing homes or about elderly relatives who live all alone and never have visitors. But elder abuse and financial exploitation are not just problems of older people we never see. It is right in our midst, and as Attorney General, I am committed to doing all I can to protect all of the citizens of our state,” says Kilmartin.

“Many elders rely on others for assistance, but oftentimes think they can easily trust these helpers to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard earned money,” says Kilmartin, noting that in some cases the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless.

Kilmartin notes that financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging crimes to investigate, charge and prosecute.  By the time law enforcement becomes aware of the abuse and investigates the matter, the statute of limitations has often expired.  “The statute of limitations needs to be more reasonable so these complicated cases can be prosecuted appropriately,” states Rhode Island’s Attorney General. “Seniors, especially those who must rely on others for care, were unnecessarily made more vulnerable by the previous short statute of limitations,” he says.

According to Kilmartin, The Office of Attorney General has a specialized unit of prosecutors and investigators that handle elder abuse cases.  Several years ago, the Elder Abuse Unit was created because of the large percentage of Rhode Islanders who were age 60 and over. The special needs of the older victims and the fact that elder abuse, neglect and exploitation crosses all racial, socio-economic, gender and geographic lines made the need for a special unit apparent.  Coupled with this fact that this age group is the State’s fastest growing demographic, crimes against older persons often times go unreported, presenting high temptation and low risk for prosecution.

In Rhode Island, there is a mandatory duty of all citizens to report a suspicion of elder abuse and/or elder financial exploitation. To report elder physical abuse and/or elder financial abuse, contact your local police, Rhode Island State Police or the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs at (401) 462-3000 or dea.ri.gov.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com or at 401 742-4372.

 

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Conference Puts the Spotlight on Financial Exploitation of the Elderly

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 31, 2014

In 2005, 80-year old Jane Jacques suffered her second stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. With no family living nearby, the widow’s physician determined that she could no longer live independently at home. The Department of Elderly Affairs asked the Alliance for Better Long Term Care to find Ms. Jacques a guardian. The probate court appointed Janet Mastronardi, to serve as guardian, making the East Greenwich attorney responsible for the older woman’s personal and financial well-being.

Over the next five years, Mastronardi embezzled and misappropriated approximately $130,000 from Jacques’ accounts, leaving her near penniless. An employee of lawyer noticed the financial irregularities while preparing an accounting of Jacques’ finances for the probate court and contacted the Rhode Island State Police, who conducted an investigation.

Earlier this year, Mastronardi pled guilty to her crimes of financial exploitation and although the Attorney General’s Office sought jail time, the Court ordered her to seven years, with 30 months to serve in home confinement and the remaining 54 months suspended with probation. In addition, the Court ordered her to pay full restitution to Jacques’ estate.

This case clearly illustrates the hidden problem of financial exploitation on older victims who oftentimes are unwilling to report this abuse because for fear of losing support of their family member or caregiver or future retaliation of these individuals. Simply put, this abuse occurs when deception, coercion, undue influence or misrepresentation is used, like the above example, to obtain unauthorized use of the older person’s property, money, pension book or other valuables.

But, the National Center on Elder Abuse, as well as other elder advocate organizations, has called financial exploitation of elders “the crime of the century.”

Aging advocates say there is currently reliable current data available on the precedence of financial exploitation. But, according to a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust (IPT), more than seven million older Americans – one out of every five citizens over the age of 65 – already have been victimized by a financial scam. One year later, a MetLife study reported the huge impact of this problem, noting that the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008.

Combatting Financial Exploitation in Rhode Island

Just two days ago, the state’s Rhode Island Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, brought together the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), local and state police, fire, social service agencies, and banks and other financial institutions to put the spotlight on financial exploitation

The half day event, hosted by the Rhode Island Citizens Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, at the CVS Health Finance Center in Cumberland, provided over 100 attendees an in-depth look at how financial crimes cases against older persons are developed, investigated and prosecuted, as well as a discussion on best practices for financial institutions to identity financial exploitation.

Financial Exploitation a Change to Investigate

Keynote speaker, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, stated “As striking as that figure is, government statistics estimate that financial exploitation is a highly underreported crime because many of the victims are unaware they are being duped or they are too frightened to even report this crime. Many elders rely on others they believe they can trust to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard-earned money. In some cases, the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless. Financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging charges to investigate and prosecute,” said.

Recognizing the challenging factors in investigating and prosecuting elder abuse, including financial exploitation, the AG’s Office has created the Elder Abuse Unit, to handle those type of cases, says Kilmartin, noting that the specialized unit was created in recognition of the fact that the proportion of the state’s population over age 60 is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so. The Elder Abuse Unit is responsible for investigative management and prosecution of crimes involving elderly victims of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation

Since it was established in 2006, the Elder Abuse Unit has seen a steady increase in the number of cases reported and prosecuted, noted Kilmartin, adding that the Office in its first year prosecuted 65 cases of elder abuse, including physical and financial exploitation. Last year, 140 individuals were prosecuted, an increase of 115 percent in less than ten years, he says…

Kilmartin credited the dramatic increase in prosecutions to a recognition by society that financial exploitation is a crime and should be prosecuted. “Like other forms of elder abuse, financial exploitation is a complex problem and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it. I have made it a priority to educate the public, law enforcement, healthcare professionals and the financial industry on the signs of financial exploitation and the numbers prove that increased awareness has directly led to increased reporting and prosecuting,” stated Kilmartin.

The Attorney General called on banking and financial industry to understand and know the signs of financial exploitation, as they are most likely to catch irregular transactions by perpetrators. “As many elders still regularly go to the bank, bank personnel are in a good position to notice suspicious activity and behavior,” he added.

John Clarkson, former Pawtucket Police Officer who now serves as Assistant Vice President of Security at Pawtucket Credit Union, led a presentation at the conference discussing how bank employees need to be aware of the various signs that an elder may be being exploited and ways to stop it.

“It’s unfortunate but our elders are a prime target for financial exploitation. It is important that we at Pawtucket Credit Union and at other financial institutions train our front line staff and management to identify when this is occurring, prevent it if possible, and most importantly report it immediately. When discovered we have worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to have those responsible prosecuted,” Clarkson said.

Kilmartin stressed that it is equally important for family members and friends to prevent and report instances of financial exploitation. He urges, family, friends and neighbors to take note of what may be happening with older relatives or neighbors. “If anything seems suspicious, such as the person seems to be withdrawn, nervous, fearful or anxious, especially around certain people, when they have not seemed so in the past, it is important to report the matter to the appropriate authorities,” he recommends.

Abuse and self-neglect reports can be filed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and on nights, weekends, and holidays, by calling 401-462-0555. Reports can be filed anonymously and are confidential. In filing a report of alleged abuse, you should give as much detail as possible, including the name of the elder, address, and contact information. If reporting to law enforcement, contact your police department, the Rhode Island State Police at 401-444-1000, or the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

The Best of…Nationally Elder Abuse and Neglect on the Increase

           Published June 25, 2001, Pawtucket Times

           Although numerous federal studies and Congressional hearings have put the public spotlight on elder abuse and neglect over the years, a Special Senate on Aging panel calls for the nation to get serious to tackle this all-to-common tragedy, called by some “the dark side” of aging. 

           “With the senior population skyrocketing, incidents of elder abuse will only continue to rise,” warned Democratic Chairman John Breaux of Louisianato his panel colleagues at the June 14th hearing.   At the hearing Senator Breaux took over the reins of the Aging  Committee from the former Chairman Republican Larry Craig ofIdaho, with the Senate majority tipping to the Democrats.  Initially it was Senator Senator Craig who had planned and put the hearing on the Senate schedule.      

           At the  hearing, Chairman Breaux estimated that more than 820,000 older and developmentally disabled individuals are subjected to abuse, neglect and exploitation.  Meanwhile, throughout  the hearing “Elder Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation: A Hidden National Tragedy,” several witnesses testified that this number is too low because of underreporting and there are no universal definitions of what is elder abuse and neglect.  To combat abuse, Chairman Breaux and the witnesses called for more funding to be provided to adult protective services, better training for medical personnel to identify the problem early and more resources for caregivers to help them with their caregiving responsibilities.

            Despite the fact that many believe that elder abuse and neglect take place in nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, most often times it occurs in a person’s home where nearly 95 percent of all domestic long-term care is being informally provided by family members and community-based caregivers, noted Chairman Breaux.

            Summing up testimony from hearing witnesses, a Senate Aging Committee staffer told The Times that elder abuse can be caused by social, medical and legal factors.

             “We are expecting families to provide a large amount of long-term care and we give only minimal assistance and support to them,” the Senate staffer said.  To deal with social factors causing elder abuse and neglect, “we need more respite care and training in care giving skills.” he added.   

             As to medical factors, the Senate staffer added, “it is crucial that better training be made available to physicians and nurses to recognize the early signs of elder abuse itself.”  If this occurred there could be much quicker interventions, he said.  

             Finally, legal factors, specifically the lack of funding for elder protective services, reduce the effectiveness of prosecuting persons who financially exploit elderly.

                 So what’s happening inRhode Island?

             According to Wayne Farrington, Chief of Facilities Regulation,Rhode Island’s Department of Health, elder abuse is on the increase in nursing facilities and assisted living facilities across the state.  “This year we have had about a 15 percent increase in reports of abuse, neglect or mistreatment,” he says.  Farrington speculates that the rise in reporting is a result of a better informed public who know where to register complaints combined with increased publicity over the staffing shortage in nursing facilities and community-based provider agencies.  The shortage of nursing assistants, who provide most of the direct patient care, along with nurses oftentimes results in the facility not being able to provide the needed care.

            “Because neglect abuse and mistreatment are criminal matters they are turned over to the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General for further investigation and prosecution, Farrington says.  “If we find that facilities have violated regulations that have resulted in the abuse or neglect we will cite the facility with deficiencies that may be tied to civil monetary penalties.

           According to Medicaid Fraud Unit Chief Bruce Todesco, of the state’s Office of the Attorney General, there are really no accurate statistics or numbers that tell the incidence of elder abuse and neglect inRhode Island.  “A lot of information comes from different sources,” he said, stressing that it would take a lot of work to pull together meaningful statistics.

           Adds, Genevieve  Allair-Johnson, Special Assistant Attorney General who serves as Elderly Affairs Liaison for Criminal Division, in the Attorney General’s Office, elder abuse and neglect cases may be under reported because the elderly person does not want to proceed against the child and competency issues often times come into play.

           “We work closely with the Department of Elderly Affairs and local police departments and provide them with legal assistance in their investigations, Allair-Johnson says.  “When discussing a case sometimes it comes up that additional inquiries will have to be made to bring about charges.”   

            Allair-Johnson states “Many times criminal charges will not be filed in cases because high standards must be met.”   Rather than filing criminal charges for elder abuse or neglect other options are in place like removing the elderly person from a home, or seeking a court ordered guardianship.

          Over the last few years the Office of the Attorney General has developed effective partnerships with the local police departments, Department of Elderly Affairs, and the Alliancefor Better Long-Term Care,” Allair-Johnson says.  “There are a host of state agencies and resources that are beginning to pull together to resolve this elder abuse issue. We’re going in the right direction.”

          To obtain materials on elder abuse, including the pamphlet “The Elder Victims Guide to the Criminal Justice System,” or to seek information about consumer issues or to report elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, call the Attorney General’s Senior Line at 888-621-1112. 

          If one has a reasonable knowledge and suspects an elderly person has been abused neglected or mistreated in a nursing facility call the Division of Facility Regulation at 222-2566.

          Herbert P. Weiss is a Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based  free lance writer covering aging, health and medical care issues,  This article appeared in the June 25, 2001 in the Pawtucket Times.   He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.