David Mann looks at a clock on the mantel of his D.C. home. He and his wife, Vera, have filed a lawsuit alleging that health-care workers took valuables from their house when David Mann needed at-home care after an operation. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Sometimes Vera Mann sees an empty spot where a treasured object once sat, and her eyes fill with tears. The mantelpiece in her living room, which used to display crystal vases and porcelain figurines. Her light-filled atrium, where small marble animals peeked out from among the orchids. Her own fingers, where for 70 years she wore her wedding and engagement rings.

All gone, now.

Over the course of six months last year, she and her husband, David, say, three nurses caring for him in their Kalorama home systematically made off with more than half a million dollars’ worth of their belongings. The Manns, both 91, have filed a $4 million civil suit against the nurses and two home health-care agencies, seeking compensation for the missing items — from bath towels to priceless family heirlooms — and for the distress it caused them. An investigation by D.C. police is also underway.

The alleged disappearances, and the length of time over which they occurred, highlight a growing problem as more Americans age and require in-home care: The more dependent they are on caregivers, the harder it is to confront them when there is a problem. And crime allegations can be hard to prosecute if it’s the word of the residents against that of the caregivers.

A bill being considered in the District may help, making it a crime to use “undue influence” in the financial abuse of a vulnerable adult, including people 65 or older. Thirty-five states have statutes criminalizing the financial exploitation of older or incapacitated persons, and at least nine have laws defining undue influence in their criminal codes.

David and Vera Mann talk about several items that they say were stolen from the kitchen. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The bill passed an initial D.C. Council vote last week, and the council expects to take a final vote this month or next. If it passes, advocates say it will make such cases easier to prosecute, particularly in situations involving coercion or in those in which it isn’t clear whether a crime has been committed.

The Manns’ three-story D.C. townhouse, with a soaring, custom-built atrium that Vera hand-painted in Italian-style trompe l’oeil, is filled with items collected over a lifetime of travel and overseas stints: He is a former assistant secretary of the Navy and she is a psychologist. The nurses were provided by Maryland-based Capital City Nurses, hired by their son in March 2015 after gastric bypass surgery left David in need of round-the-clock care.

When small kitchen items began to vanish, the couple said they initially assumed they had been misplaced. But then the disappearances became more glaring, they said. A Limoges china planter. A silver fish platter. An expensive eelskin briefcase that hadn’t left the house in 25 years. And finally, the couple said, jewelry and furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars vanished, including pieces Vera’s mother brought over from Russia around the time of the Titanic disaster.

“Those things, and the house itself as a safe environment that she had designed, were an important world to her, so to have a lot of the components of that world lost, to be invaded like that, was very traumatic for her,” said their son, James Mann. For his father, he said, “it’s more a matter of a violation of trust, that people who came in on the basis of they were going to take care of him didn’t do their job.”

By September, David was nailing boards across the kitchen cupboards and Vera was hiding valuables in locked rooms the caregivers were not supposed to enter. That didn’t work — they allege that locked closets were forceably opened, and Vera said she awoke one night to find one of the caregivers in her bedroom, rummaging through boxes.

When the Manns called Capital City Nurses to report what was happening, they said, they were not taken seriously.

“They said, ‘Oh no, our people don’t do such things,’ ” David said.

The Manns are a 91-year-old couple who hired 24- hour-a-day caregivers after he had an operation last year. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

When they called the police on Sept. 17, their day caregiver stopped showing up for work, the couple said. The night caregiver had disappeared three weeks earlier without notice, a few days after seeing the boarded-up cupboards, the suit said.

“None of them gave notice or resigned in any normal way; they just disappeared,” said Charles Curlett, an attorney who last month filed the civil suit in D.C. Superior Court on the couple’s behalf. A police spokesperson said Monday that the department’s investigation is still active.

Robert Grant, an attorney for Capital Health Care Associates, the agency originally listed in the suit, said, “The company is going to let the process play out in court, and beyond that we don’t have any further comment at this time.”

Reached by phone, the night nurse named in the suit said the allegations were false. “She’s making up stories,” she said of Vera Mann. “She’s not after me; she’s after my insurance.”

The day nurse, reached by phone, said he was looking for an attorney and had no comment. A third nurse named in the suit, who the Manns said was sent by the agency intermittently, could not be reached by phone.

No national database keeps track of fraud against older people, but an estimated 20 to 40 percent have experienced financial exploitation of some kind, and the cases are vastly underreported, said Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

People 50 and older own 67 percent of bank deposits in the United States, according to a recent AARP report. “So they’re more likely to be targets,” Greenlee said. “The largest risk factor is dementia or cognitive impairment . . . but not having dementia is not a safe harbor.”

The most likely perpetrator is someone who is known and trusted, she said, noting that in many cases, caregivers view older people in a negative light and feel entitled to their money.

Ageism can also influence how aggressively police and prosecutors pursue the cases. “I think there’s a perception in law enforcement that older adults can be unreliable,” Greenlee said. “There’s a fallacy that it’s difficult to prosecute someone when the victim is old or frail or has some kind of cognitive impairment.”

In reality, the opposite can be true, said Paul Greenwood, a deputy district attorney and head of San Diego’s elder abuse unit, who advised the District on the new bill.

When an older person with cognitive impairment testifies, he said, “I’m secretly happy because the jury gets to see exactly why this victim was chosen, and if the defense attorney wants to cross examine, be my guest. . . . Jurors get it.”

Still, such cases can be hard to prosecute without evidence. As far as the Manns know, none of the missing items have been recovered. A search of local and federal courts found no criminal charges for the individual defendants, and no previous lawsuits for Capital City Nurses Healthcare Services or Capital Health Care Associates, under which they also do business. The nurses have no disciplinary history in the District, Maryland or Virginia.

Another company was added last week as a defendant in the suit; the Manns’ attorney said it has not yet been served.

‘We’re going to need evidence’

Even when there is no dementia, older people are more likely to question their own memory before blaming others. Vera can be a little forgetful about minor details but both are of sound mind, their son said, and David’s caregivers were licensed nurses sent by an organization his hospital case worker had recommended.

Older people also may be more reluctant to confront the people caring for them. In David’s case, it had been hard to find people who were skilled at performing a difficult and painful daily procedure.

“To me it was inconceivable that this man standing in front of me, taking care of things medically, would steal,” David Mann said. Even when the Manns began to suspect the workers, “Not wanting to experiment with new caregivers made it very awkward, so we just kept them on until we just couldn’t stand it any longer.”

When the Manns confronted the nurses, they did not admit to taking anything, but the day nurse “talked at length about his faith in God, and he told [Vera] how she would have a revelation and be rewarded in the Kingdom of Heaven for the good that her property would do in the hands of others,” the suit alleges.

The Manns’ ordeal is not unusual, said Bob Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, who said he often hears similar stories.

The fraud can go beyond pilfering belongings. “Sometimes the scammers or perpetrators detect the vulnerabilities [of the client] and the next thing you know they’re changing wills and documents and shutting family members off altogether,” Blancato said.

The bill pending in the D.C. Council would help in situations such as the one alleged in the Manns’ suit, said Amy Mix, supervising attorney for consumer fraud and financial abuse at AARP’s Legal Counsel for the Elderly.

“That activity to me screams undue influence,” she said. “They’re in­cred­ibly dependent on these workers physically and emotionally.”

Some jurisdictions are more proactive than others about prosecuting cases of elder abuse, she said, noting that in Montgomery County, Adult Protective Services, detectives and prosecutors work in the same office on these cases and can easily communicate about them.

A new coalition – the District’s Collaborative Training & Response for Older Victims (DC TROV) — aims to improve the District’s response with a multidisciplinary team of law enforcement, social services and advocates, and is providing elder-abuse training to police officers, detectives, prosecutors and judges. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia also offers regular presentations to educate the public about financial crimes against seniors.

In general, before bringing a criminal case, “We’re going to need evidence and we’re going to need a witness who is able and willing to testify in court,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Virginia Cheatham. “It’s not enough to have someone who says, ‘My mother didn’t agree to this’; we have to have the mother testify.” In the absence of stolen goods, she said, evidence could include PayPal records or unexplained cash deposits to defendants’ accounts.

Curlett said he does not yet know how the case will proceed, but he said the Manns “would certainly be willing to testify if that’s the right thing to do at that time.”

These days, David has a new caregiver and the thefts have stopped. But Vera still feels traumatized.

“I can’t sleep in my bedroom since this happened,” she said, adding that she and her husband have both lost weight and she still has nightmares. “They walked in and acted like it was Woolworth’s.”

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Resources on elder abuse

●Eldercare Locator: www.eldercare.gov or 800-677-1116

●National Center on Elder Abuse: www.ncea.aoa.gov

●Department of Justice: www.justice.gov/elderjustice/