We know that abuse of seniors is a growing problem. Based on information from the National Center on Elder Abuse, the majority of abusers are family members. However, only 44 out of 1000 instances of abuse are reported to authorities. Why aren’t more cases reported to the very authorities capable of stopping the abusers?
It seems to me that most family members are simply unwilling to “rat out” another family member even when they know that abuse is going on. When it comes to the seniors themselves, there is shame and embarrassment associated with being taken advantage of by someone close, especially someone they surely trusted. There is hesitation and fear. They want to talk about it but not do anything about it. The reluctance to report the abuse to Adult Protective Services is not limited to the seniors who can’t bear to call the authorities about a son, daughter or other relative.
I recently received a call from a distressed sister of a brother that she was convinced was stealing from their parents. He had total control over their parents, one of whom had dementia. His parents had appointed him as the agent on both the Durable Power of Attorney and the Advance Healthcare Directive. This gave him the legal authority to make both financial decisions without being accountable to anyone else and all healthcare decisions as well. I listened patiently to all the reasons she thought her brother was taking her parents’ money and using it for himself. I asked her if she had called Adult Protective Services.” No”, she said. When I asked why not she said “I don’t want to get my brother in trouble”. Where is the logic in that?
In another case, the elder herself had called. “I gave my grandson a big loan and he hasn’t paid it back,” she said. “But now I need the money to live on”. She described how her favorite grandson had taken title to her mobile home and gotten a loan, even after she had “loaned” him most of her savings. I explained that her chances of getting paid back were probably not very good, but the least she could do was to report what had happened to authorities. I advised her that taking a “loan” from an 80 year old and not paying it back would likely be considered elder abuse and it should be reported to APS. “Would my grandson go to jail?” she asked. I told her I didn’t know but it can happen when someone has committed this crime of elder abuse. She said, “I don’t want my grandson to go to jail”. Unfortunately, I am sure she did not follow up or do anything more about the problem.
Seniors like the 80-year-old woman are typical of why elder abuse does not get reported and therefore prosecuted more often, even when a family member is well aware of what is going on and knows that it is wrong. They would rather suffer impoverishment than be the one to report abuse. In fact, these same victims may refuse to testify against a relative who has abused them, even when these cases are prosecuted. Charges may not stick when the victim is unwilling to testify, unless there are independent records to prove the case in court.
It is as much a problem of our emotions and fears as it is of the wrongdoing itself. We somehow justify the actions, we look the other way or we fear what justice will do to our abusive relative.
I wonder, where is the anger at a crime against a person who is easily taken advantage of by the abuser? Where is the advocacy for the vulnerable person who is also our relative? Why are we remaining silent in this growing, $2.9 billion dollar a year problem?
I would be willing to guess that there is someone reading this whose client has a financial abuser in a their family or knows of a family where this has taken place. I urge you to speak up. To my knowledge, you can remain anonymous in your reporting, just as you can with any crime. Whether or not the criminal justice system can prove the crime is not your problem. It is your problem to carry the knowledge of financial abuse with you and to do nothing to protect the elder. One day it could be you who is victimized.
We are all encountering an aging population and the crime of opportunity of abusing elders is not going away. I am hopeful that we will show enough concern, enough responsibility and enough guts to do the right thing when we see a wrong that needs our attention.