L.A. Takes Multipronged Tack to Financial Abuse of Elderly

In part two of our series on the financial abuse of the elderly, Judy Campbell of member station KQED reports on a multi-agency approach pioneered in Los Angeles, known as FAST or Financial Abuse Specialty Team. The group recoups money and prosecutes cases.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

The fastest growing part of the population is people over the age of 80. Many are isolated and in declining mental health and are vulnerable to scam artists, predatory lenders and even their own caregivers. That's why the state of California is pioneering efforts to root out and investigate this type of abuse. Judy Campbell of member station KQED has the second of two reports on the exploitation of the elderly.

JUDY CAMPBELL reporting:

Financial elder abuse comes in many forms. In Sacramento last year, it was a man approaching Eleanora Odermatt's(ph) 88-year-old husband to strike up a conversation.

Ms. ELEANORA ODERMATT: He proceeded to tell him how his brother was killed in the 9/11 attacks in New York, and they just now made an insurance settlement, and he had to distribute this money. His brother wanted it.

CAMPBELL: Like many such scams, the details don't make much sense in the retelling, but in the end, the Odermatts, believing they were just showing the money to the man, lost $15,000 in cash they had saved for a new roof.

Ms. ODERMATT: We were even ashamed to act like we disputed what he was saying, because we would have been embarrassed. I mean, you know, he was such a nice person that we thought we would hurt his feelings or something. Can you imagine?

CAMPBELL: Now more wary of strangers, Mrs. Odermatt would only agree to talk by phone. Her case came before a financial abuse specialist, or FAS team. That's an approach used in dozens of California counties to crack down on those who prey on older people who, with the onset of dementia, can have a hard time critically assessing situations. The multi-agency team attacks cases from all angles. Can money be recovered? Assets frozen? Should anyone go to jail for this?

The approach, pioneered in Los Angeles, is beginning to spread to other states. Still, Ronald Costen, director of Temple University's Institute on Protective Services, says nationwide elder abuse gets little attention. He says it's similar to the way child abuse was approached decades ago. Law enforcement agencies often see it as a family matter and won't act on a case.

Mr. RONALD COSTEN (Director, Temple University's Institute on Protective Services): The recognition that older people are victimized and that they are victimized by the very people that are responsible for giving them care, these awarenesses are not part of the public's conversational repertoire.

CAMPBELL: Since most abuse is committed by family members and may have lasted for years, when it is reported, it's often tangled in a morass of conflicting emotions that can make it nearly impossible to intervene. In San Francisco, social worker Dorothy Capers is first responder for Adult Protective Services. She worries, that may be the fate of her new case. Capers is investigating suspected financial abuse of a 91-year-old woman by her son. From a house sale and many loans, the woman took in more than a million dollars, but now she's deep in debt and can't pay her bills.

Ms. DOROTHY CAPERS (Adult Protective Services): Do you want to sit in here?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, please.

Ms. CAPERS: OK.

CAMPBELL: The woman wouldn't allow recording. During the more-than-three-hour visit, she admits to Capers that she spoils her 52-year-old son. She bought him a house and pays his substantial credit card bills. She also remembers signing some papers. What she doesn't know and Capers tells her is that those papers signed her house over to her son. This the woman can't take in. Her face goes blank. The conversation is over.

Ms. CAPERS: Oh, my God. That's a bad one, because she's not going to stop.

CAMPBELL: Over lunch, Capers ponders how she'll approach the case, since the woman is unlikely to agree to anything that may harm her son.

Ms. CAPERS: People have a right to folly, you know. They have a right to make stupid decisions. It's becomes a problem when you can no longer take care of yourself.

CAMPBELL: After several months of working with APS, the woman, while never acknowledging her son did anything wrong, agrees to stop giving him money and to try to get her house back. Untangling these cases takes time and money, but while reports of financial elder abuse have gone up 20 percent in California in the past four years, funding hasn't kept pace. Some counties have cut their APS staff almost in half. Nationwide, elder abuse programs get only 2 percent of the federal funding currently given for child abuse. Advocates stress that public awareness is key. Many older people, like Mrs. Odermatt, don't know they're vulnerable.

Ms. ODERMATT: I mean, to think that we were so gullible because we just never dreamed that anything like that would happen to us.

CAMPBELL: So it's up to families and neighbors to keep their eyes out. Elder advocates say keep in touch with older people, trust your instincts, and if you suspect anything is wrong, report it.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Campbell in San Francisco.

INSKEEP: If you want to get more advice for spotting elder abuse, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.

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