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Inside Criminal Justice

Elder Abuse: The (Almost) Invisible Crime

July 27, 2011 11:01:11 pm

By Amanda Moses

In New York State, over 260,000 seniors were victimized in 2008-2009. As Baby Boomers age, the problem is likely to get worse.

Every year in the United States, thousands of elderly people are targets of fraud—in the worst cases leaving them homeless and impoverished after losing a lifetime’s worth of savings.

Professionals have a name for it: elder abuse.

And as the massive “boomer generation” approaches their 60s and 70s,  the problem is likely to increase geometrically as millions of elderly Americans face challenges ranging from financial exploitation to outright physical abuse and neglect.

Advocates say that the country is ill-prepared for this “Age Wave.”

“[Its] coming at a time when the programs that exist to address elder abuse have either been cut or have remained stagnant for 30-plus years,” says Art Mason, program director of Elder Abuse Prevention, for LifeSpan of Greater Rochester, Inc., in New York.

 “It’s very scary [because] we know demand for help will increase,” adds Mason 

Under the Radar

A New York State study of the problem, ”Under the Radar: New York State Elder Abuse Prevalence,” found that some 260,000 New York seniors were the victims of abuse during 2008-2009. 

This number is steadily increasing, according to Susan Steele, Assistant Director of Communications for New York’s Protective Services for Adults (PSA). 

Steele attributes the rise to difficult economic times.

The “Under the Radar” study, conducted by Lifespan, the New York City Department for Aging and Weill Cornell Medical Center, found that more than 10 percent of New Yorkers over 60 report having been the victims of abuse.

The most common category of abuse is financial exploitation, such as theft.

Even more disturbing, the majority of the abuse involves a family member or guardian.

“Scores of helpless, frail people have collectively been physically abused, had their life savings depleted, and lost their homes due to the unscrupulous acts of guardians,” says Laura Negron, director of the Guardianship Project, a program developed by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2005 to aid elderly and disabled New Yorkers. 

With a clientele of 100, the Guardianship Project, in cooperation with the district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn and other programs, helps seniors once considered incapacitated fulfill their dreams of living independently. 

The Guardianship project has an operating budget of $1.2 million a year, which supports 14 staff members, including lawyers, social workers, property and finance specialists.

According to Negron, the clients that they have helped keep out of costly institutions have netted savings of $2.5 million in state Medicaid expenses.  

New York is not alone in the fight against elder abuse.  

State and federal statutes mandate that each state have some form of adult protective service agency to report elder abuse.  Nevertheless, one out of every 14  Americans over 60 years old suffers abuse―and for each reported case an estimated five more go unreported, according to New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services.     

The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse estimates that between four percent and six percent of Americans over 60 are abused.

Studies from the National Center on Elder Abuse  suggest that it is hard to measure how big the problem of elder abuse really is because of the rate of unreported cases.

The available data indicate that very few seniors who are victims of abuse are actually being helped.

"Exploitation and abuse of incapacitated elderly and disabled people at the hand of their trusted guardian is, sadly, not a new phenomenon,” says Negron, adding that it often goes unnoticed   “until another sensational headline hits the news.”

The Astor Case

In 2006, New York socialite and philanthropist Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was indicted for defrauding his mother.  According to evidence produced in court, the late Mrs. Astor, who died at the age of 105 suffered systematic abuse.

She had been forced to sleep in a bed of her own urine, denied medication, and had thousands of dollars stolen by her son who had power of attorney over her assets, the court was told.

And this past February, a California judge issued a restraining order against the stepson of 90-year-old actor Mickey Rooney.  Rooney had filed the request after the man withheld his medication and exploited his finances.  

Most elders, however, do not have the advantage of press attention—nor the money to hire expensive lawyers.

And that’s where the government or―for now―advocacy groups come in.

The Guardianship Project helps seniors manage their finances and medical issues. The program receives funding primarily through the NYS Office of Court Administration, as well as other state and private grants.

However, with only a $1.2 million operating budget,  the program has only been able to assist approximately 200 seniors since its inception. Part of the reason for the small clientele is that the program attempts to comply with National Association of Social Workers caseload standards, which require that each worker be assigned only the number of cases that allow a high quality of service for each client.  

Across the state, there are other programs―including through PSA and Lifespan―that provide services for abused elders, but not nearly enough to help all those in need.

Public Guardianship

The answer, according to Lifespan’s Art Mason, is a public guardianship program based on the Vera model.   

 As of now, New York agencies have few funds to help people "lacking in capacity" under Article 81 of the NYS Mental Hygiene Law. So if the person in need does not have money or assets to pay for necessary services―such as medical care or legal fees―the state is unable to assist, says Mason. 

According to Susan Steele, state programs such as PSA require clients meet certain criteria in order to receive guardianship.

Vera’s Guardianship Project can help serve individuals that are not eligible for PSA, such as institutionalized clients. 

One example of the Guardianship’s success was the case of Ms. D, an 88-year-old New York City resident who was held against her will for seven years in a nursing home.

According to Vera, Ms. D, whose full name has been withheld to protect her identity, lived with her sister in an Upper East Side studio apartment.  After a tragic fall, her sister was admitted into a nursing home, leaving Ms. D alone—and subject to delusions that left her vulnerable both medically and emotionally to financial predators.

Ms. D was sent to a nursing home to recover, only to discover that the doorman in her Upper East Side, to whom she had given power of attorney after he befriended her, had liquidated her assets and fled to Central America with $460,000. 

Suddenly, Ms. D was unable to pay her rent or taxes.

Thanks to the Guardianship Project, Ms. D—who had also been charged $400,000 by the nursing home she was held in—was able to clear her debts with the IRS by proving that she was  the victim of financial abuse. 

The project also helped her apply for private homecare.

In March, she was discharged from the home and is now living in her studio apartment with live-in home care.

Amanda Moses is a summer news intern with The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

ED NOTE: The original version of this article misidentified Brooke Astor's son. He is Anthony, not Phillip, Marshall. Thanks to Philip Marshall for pointing out our mistake.

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