Elder Abuse--the Silent Crime 06/17/99
Financial exploitation of elders is rarely reported, hard to prove, and may particularly be a problem in Monterey County.
Thursday, June 17, 1999
Violet Benny had lived most of her long life on the Monterey Peninsula. In her youth, she played on her family''s ranch off of Highway 68. As an adult, she toiled as a legal secretary for 58 years, last working for the law firm Hudson Martin Ferrante and Street in Monterey. She never had any children, and her husband''s death left her alone in the world, but sources say Benny had lots of friends.
As she aged, Benny''s mind remained sharp as a tack, but her eyesight eventually failed her, leaving her confined to her home at Forest Hill Manor in Pacific Grove. Unable to perform routine errands and not wanting to burden her friends, Benny hired Wanda Gray to manage her money.
Gray, a well-liked former bank teller, owned a bookkeeping business specializing in services for elderly clients, many of whom, like Benny, were residents of long-term care facilities. Gray was given access to Benny''s bank accounts, paid her bills, made deposits and performed other banking transactions.
Benny trusted the ingratiating Gray--whom one source describes as "sugary sweet"--and the bookkeeper took full advantage of that trust. Gray proceeded to wreak havoc on Benny''s nest egg.
In May of 1992, Gray withdrew money from an account of Benny''s and transferred the funds to another bank where she posted the money as security for a $70,000 loan for herself. That was the third such loan Gray had taken out. The first two were secured with the funds of another elderly client.
Later that year, Gray cashed in a certificate of deposit belonging to Benny that had not yet matured--she told Benny that it had. Unbeknownst to Benny, Gray used the funds for herself to pay off her loan. Gray also helped herself to some of Benny''s cash along the way.
But a friend of Benny''s smelled a rat when she heard that Benny''s CD had matured--the friend knew that it hadn''t, so she called the police. An investigation by the Pacific Grove Police Department revealed that Gray was a thief. All in all, she stole a total of $88,930 from the unsuspecting senior. Moreover, police discovered that Gray had ripped off a number of elderly victims, some incapacitated, some already dead.
Violet Benny never saw her money again--she died in November of 1992 at the age of 90. In 1993, Gray plead guilty to and was convicted of felony grand theft for stealing money from Benny and her other victims. Gray was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay restitution to Benny''s estate.
Although her bookkeeping days are over, Gray still conducts business in the area. And to this day, sources say, the little ol'' ladies in P.G. love Wanda Gray.
Tip of the Iceberg
In the eyes of current state law, Wanda Gray did more than steal. Gray was guilty of financially abusing an elder.
The legal term "elder abuse" first appeared in 1987 via amendments to the federal Older Americans Act. Under California code, a crime is considered elder abuse when the victim of a crime is 65 years old or over. While elderly abuse was originally defined by state law as abuse by a caregiver, a recent change in the penal code broadens the definition to include non-caregivers.
Those found guilty of elder abuse face stiffer sentencing. For instance, the fact that a victim is an elder is considered in California to be a "circumstance in aggravation" when an abuser is convicted of felony embezzlement, giving juries and judges the go-ahead to condemn perpetrators to maximum jail sentences. Elder abuse also goes on the abuser''s criminal record, distinguishing the individual as one who seeks elder victims.
Elder abuse is broken into three general categories: domestic abuse, which refers to abuse within the elder or caregiver''s home, usually by a family member; institutional abuse, which happens within residential care facilities where the abuser has a contractual or legal relationship to the abused; and self-abuse or self-neglect.
Within those three categories, seven types of elder abuse are recognized by law: physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, self-neglect and financial exploitation.
Financial, or fiduciary, elder abuse is generally defined as illegal or improper use of an elderly person''s funds, property or assets. Financial elder abuse can take on many forms: Fraud, theft and embezzlement are all considered elder abuse. Of all reported elder-abuse cases, the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) reports that 12 percent fall into the financial abuse category.
There is no doubt that the practice of elder abuse is as old as the hills. But the problem has slowly come to light in recent years. Even today, the prevalence of the crime remains uncertain.
"The way that child abuse was the silent crime of the ''70s, elder abuse is the silent crime of the ''90s," says Frank Hespe, attorney and executive director of the nonprofit Legal Services for Seniors in Pacific Grove.
The scant available statistical information only illustrates the crime''s obscurity. While a NCEA study concludes that 293,000 cases of elder abuse were reported to authorities in 1996, the center offers a rambling estimate that between 820,000 and 1,860,000 seniors actually suffered from abuse that same year.
Likewise, the National Elder Abuse Incidence Study released last year by the federal Administration on Aging estimates that between 210,900 and 688,948 elders were victims of abuse in domestic settings (in a home rather than in an institution) in 1996, yet found only 236,479 cases of domestic elder abuse were reported that year.
Experts seem certain of only one thing: What authorities actually see is only the tip of the iceberg. The NCEA estimates only one in 14 cases of elder abuse are ever officially reported to authorities.
Those cases that do come to the attention of authorities are usually reported by a neighbor, family member or health care provider. Seldom do victims report the abuse themselves.
Many times the victim is simply incapable, either physically or mentally, to come forward and report the crime. Other times, especially when the abuser is a family member, lonely seniors may be fearful of being left without anyone to care for them.
For example, "An aging mother may be in denial, may be fearful that if she blows the whistle on her son, she''ll be left without any care," explains Vicki Bamman, executive director of the Monterey County Long-Term Care Ombudsman. "Whether it''s good care or bad care at that point becomes incidental."
It''s also often a matter of pride, explains Bamman, particularly for male victims. Oftentimes victims of financial abuse are sophisticated, powerful people who as they age find it difficult to admit weakness.
"Say an elder father has put his daughter on his checking account, and now she''s taking advantage of that," says Bamman. "How much pride does he have to swallow to come forward, to admit he''s no longer the strong man in charge, that now he''s the victim of a young girl? It''s embarrassing, it can be humiliating."
It''s Who You Know
More often than not, the abuser is a family member or caregiver given the responsibility of managing the elder''s finances.
Trusted family members are often put in charge of the elder''s finances when he or she becomes too frail or confused to managed them alone. The NCEA reports that in 1996, 60 percent of reported elder abusers were family members, and over half of those were adult children. Sometimes family members give in to the temptation, even rationalizing in their minds that the money in essence belongs to them. After all, what the heck is granny going to do with all that money anyway?
For instance, Hespe is currently advising one local senior, "Margaret." In order to pay off some of her credit cards, Margaret took out a line of credit against her house. With her helpful son hovering over her and guiding her through the papers, the 87-year-old woman, says Hespe, signed the loan documents without reading them. Margaret was unaware that her son''s name was also on the loan.
The son then paid off his own credit cards, says Hespe, and bought a brand new car--all to the tune of $67,000. Mom now has to pay the money back or lose her home. That scenario, says Hespe, is typical.
Non-family caregivers are the second most likely group to commit elder abuse. In domestic situations, caregivers may be given latitude to write checks and pay bills, and start skimming off the senior''s account. Or sometimes they just flat out steal valuables from the home.
"Most health care providers are honest people," says Pacific Grove Police Chief Scott Miller. "The biggest problem we have is when the senior doesn''t go through a service and hires someone on their own. Sometimes those people are not bonded or have a criminal history."
But once a senior moves into a retirement home, the financial abuse doesn''t always stop there. As in Wanda Gray''s case, criminals preying on seniors find their way into the trust of retirement home residents just as easily. Financial abuse can also tempt nursing home employees looking for a quick buck.
Such was the case with Nedine Scott, a former administrator at the Carmel Inn for Seniors. Between July and October of 1997, Scott stole some $10,000 from a resident of the Carmel Inn. When the elderly woman fell down some stairs, Scott billed her trust for round-the-clock care. But, in fact, the injured elder was only getting about eight hours a day of care.
Scott was convicted of grand theft last year and sentenced to 180 days in jail and 36 months of probation, and ordered to pay full restitution.
Elder abuse can also take the form of fraudulent scams. While there are no good statistics, local elder abuse experts agree that Monterey County is a particular target for scam artists targeting seniors.
Criminals find lonely, confused or trusting seniors easy prey for a whole spectrum of scams. In one common scheme, says Hespe, the abuser poses as a home repair contractor and convinces elders they need a new roof, even inviting seniors to climb a ladder and look for themselves. When the senior agrees to the work, the scammer takes their money up front and quickly disappears.
"I think sometimes the rest of the country sees Monterey County through the Goodyear blimp," says Bamman. "They see Pebble Beach, they see the AT&T Pro-Am, and they see dollar signs. Bad guys come to Monterey County to take advantage of what they see as a disproportionate number of wealthy seniors."
Financial abuse is the most difficult type of elder abuse to prove. There are usually no witnesses involved, and the crime is committed completely out of the victim''s sight. Moreover, physical evidence takes the form of bank records and receipts, which the abuser controls.
A friend of Violet Benny''s says she had repeatedly asked Wanda Gray for her checkbook, but Gray always found some excuse not to cough it up, leaving Benny virtually helpless. If Benny''s astute friend hadn''t caught on to her shenanigans, Gray may have been able to get away scot-free.
"The problem we are constantly running into," says Monterey County Assistant District Attorney Terri Spitz, "is that the ones who have the keys to the evidence are the defendants."
Given the difficulty in proving financial elder abuse, combined with the fact that abused elders are often reluctant to press charges, perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. Police many times refuse to pursue financial abuse cases. In Margaret''s case, says Hespe, she called the police, but they refused to investigate.
It''s even more difficult to prove--particularly if the victim is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer''s disease--that the elder did not give consent to the abuser to use funds in the manner concerned. The federal Administration on Aging reports that 6 out of 10 abused seniors experienced some degree of confusion.
"If the elder person is suffering from dementia," says Sue Stryker, chief investigator with the Monterey County district''s attorney''s office, "it''s almost impossible to tell if that person gave permission. A lot of times the victim can''t remember if they gave permission or willingly signed over power of attorney."
And abusers, says Stryker, are generally good at explaining away the wanton spending of Ma or Pa''s money. A caregiver, for example, may justify funds spent on a brand new car because the car is being used to drive the elder on errands. Or, a common excuse given by abusers is they intend to pay the money back.
If financial abuse cases end up in court at all, it''s more likely in civil court where the burden of proof is lower. California legislation has made is easier to take civil cases of financial elder abuse to court.
"The real tragedy is [elder abuse] is often times seen as a civil problem," says Bill Kennedy, a captain with the Pacific Grove Police Department who busted Wanda Gray. "It''s not seen as a crime unless it''s a stranger or you can show that the people are using it for their own purpose, and you show there was an intent to permanently deprive the elder."
Nevertheless, even civil case are difficult to pursue. Attorney Frank Hespe says his office saw about 200 cases of financial elder abuse last year, but few are litigated.
"The nature of [elder financial abuse cases] is they rarely ever go to litigation," says Hespe. "The abuser is either a friend or a family member, or there is enough ambiguity, or the victim is just embarrassed.
Such as Margaret, whose son helped himself to her line of credit: After three meetings, she''s still trying to decide whether or not to sue her thieving family member, says Hespe.
"In virtually every case, it takes a lot of empowerment to convince the senior to come forward," continues Hespe. "They don''t want to admit that someone that should care about them has done these terrible things. Sometimes the abuser is the only one who comes to visit. It''s the fear of being left alone. Seniors have been abandoned by this society, in effect."