(iStock)

What kind of people cheat and financially abuse incapacitated older folks?

Sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and lawyers – people who act as guardians for their relatives and clients.

What can the federal government do about it?

Currently not much, because elder abuse generally is considered a state and local problem. But at least the federal government can help with the important step of defining the problem. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plans to soon launch a data collection program that will assist experts combating elderly exploitation.

“Unfortunately, the extent of elder abuse by guardians is relatively unknown to us due to the limited data that we have available,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said at a Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing last week.

The title of the hearing gets to the point — “Trust Betrayed: Financial Abuse of Older Americans by Guardians and Others in Power.”

“The amount of money lost through exploitation of elders is staggering and growing,” said Cathy “Cate” Boyko, Minnesota judicial branch conservator account auditing program manager. She cited a 2015 study indicating the estimated national annual financial loss at $36.5 billion. “There is no question these losses are increasing at an alarming rate.”

Early next year, HHS will begin the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System (NAMRS), which the department describes as “the first comprehensive national reporting system” for Adult Protective Service (APS) programs. The data collection will include information from investigations into the mistreatment of older adults and adults with disabilities. “The absence of data for research and best practice development has been cited by numerous entities, including the Government Accountability Office (GAO), as a significant barrier to improving APS programs,” says the HHS Administration for Community Living.

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) agrees. “There is no doubt financial abuse against our seniors is a problem—and a very serious one made even more difficult by a lack of data that makes it difficult to quantify,” she told The Washington Post. “But I think this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Data collection is key, yet it seems far removed from the day-to-day suffering of seniors who can’t help themselves. Consider these stories from hearing testimony:

  • “An 82-year-old WW II veteran had suffered two strokes and was confined to a wheelchair and homebound. After his wife passed away, he needed help so he bought a mobile home and asked his daughter to move in with him. He also named his daughter agent under a POA [power of attorney] and added her to the title of the home and his bank accounts. The daughter systematically isolated her father and took complete control over his money …” said Jaye Martin, executive director of Maine’s Legal Services for the Elderly. “When he sought help he believed he had $20,000 in savings, but only $15 remained in his accounts. Bank records revealed that his daughter had taken his money for her personal use, opened and charged thousands on credit cards in his name, and purchased a new car using her POA authority to add him as a co-signer.”
  • A niece caring for her 83-year-old aunt in Virginia used the elderly woman’s money for the younger woman’s personal expenses, “including an $11,645 pickup truck for a friend and $360 at a sunglasses retailer in Tennessee,” said Kathryn A. Larin, GAO’s forensic audits and investigative service acting director. The niece was ordered to pay more than $32,000 in restitution and sentenced to 12 months in prison.
  • Citing another criminal complaint in Virginia, Larin said a legal assistant to a lawyer acting as a professional guardian stole more than $100,000 from an elder’s bank account to support a drug habit. The lawyer discovered the thefts, but allowed it to continue because he had a “personal relationship” with his assistant. After the thefts were discovered, the lawyer “pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, agreed to repay the stolen funds, and in 2015 consented to the revocation of his law license,” according to Larin.

In the past year, Martin said 48 percent of the elder-abuse cases handled by her organization involved financial exploitation, “with 75 percent of those involving family members as the perpetrators. This is consistent with national research, which found that in 90 percent of reported elder-abuse cases with a known perpetrator, the perpetrator is a family member.”

It’s a shame – and too often a crime – when elders can’t trust their kin.

Read more:

[Does lack of HHS controls contribute to personal-care abuse of the elderly and disabled?]