Printer Friendly

Investing in the future: protecting the elderly from financial abuse.

Over the years, a shift in law enforcement priorities, as well as an increase in general awareness, has made most officers familiar with the concepts of spousal abuse and child abuse. Still, the term elder abuse raises questions among even the most seasoned law enforcement officers. From physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to financial exploitation, approximately 818,000 elderly individuals are victimized annually. Furthermore, experts estimate that only 1 in 10 cases of elder abuse gets reported.(1)

Many elderly citizens must contend with a variety of health problems that limit their physical or mental functioning. Some become bedridden and cut off from normal contact with the rest of the world. At the same time, mental limitations leave many older citizens highly vulnerable to various forms of abuse.

In Tennessee, caseworkers with the Tennessee Department of Human Services receive approximately 400 new reports of adult abuse each month. The agency pursues about 3,200 cases per month. Thirty-five percent of the cases involve victims over the age of 80.(2)

These statistics relate to elder abuse in general. The precise number of elder abuse cases involving financial exploitation is unknown because cases often are not reported to either social service or law enforcement agencies. Victims seem more likely to report physical abuse than financial abuse, which may be due to the perception that bodily assaults are more threatening than property losses, as well as the embarrassment that individuals feel when they fall victim to fraud, or finally, because they simply are unaware that something is amiss. Furthermore, no national reporting center or database exists to compile and analyze reported cases. Consequently, no one can accurately estimate the number of cases of financial forms of elder abuse, even if they do get reported.

However, academic research confirms the existence of significant amounts of financial elder abuse. For example, a relatively recent study of various forms of elder abuse that occurred in Forsyth County, North Carolina, found financial abuse to be the most prevalent form, accounting for 46 percent of the total abuse cases.(3)

Unlike the bruises that often accompany physical abuse, the signs of financial abuse may not be so obvious. Nonetheless, financial victimization can create serious problems for the aged. Elder citizens who can no longer work may not be able to recoup their economic losses. Many victims become dependent upon family members, creating additional stress within families already economically strained. Families often are overcome by the financial and other burdens associated with providing care for a needy elderly relative. Consequently, many destitute elderly citizens depend on social welfare agencies for survival, and their quality of life suffers tremendously.

Unfortunately, because financial abuse is the type of exploitation least likely to be recognized or understood by police officers, financial abusers are least likely to be detected and apprehended. By understanding the nature of financial abuse, law enforcement officers can give seniors the security they deserve.

Definitional Issues

A lack of federal statutes regulating elder abuse has placed the responsibility on states to define this type of crime, and the states' definitions for elder abuse, financial abuse, and even the elderly vary. Most states define the elderly as anyone over age 65; 6 states apply the term to individuals over 60, one state, 55.(4) Some states do not differentiate between elderly and adult crime victims; anyone over age 18 (or the state's age of majority) is simply an adult victim. However, if adult victims meet such specific state criteria as "adults in need of protective services," then certain elder abuse statutes may apply.

The definitions of financial elder abuse vary, as well. Some definitions include the use of force, misrepresentation, or other illegal means to take advantage of a person's partial or complete incompetence;(5) the illegal use of an elder's resources or property;(6) the misuse or theft of money and property; the use of funds without the owner's permission; the persuasion of the eider to relinquish control of resources; or the distribution of resources without the elder's consent.(7) Many states define financial elder abuse within general elder abuse or financial abuse statutes.(8) In short, the various ways elder abuse is defined often causes confusion and a lack of understanding of the forms it can take.

Forms of Financial Abuse

Ironically, the elderly often are financially abused by their own legally appointed conservators or guardians. Conservatorship, a court-appointed position, involves involuntary removal of the elders' civil rights, including the legal ability to handle their own finances. Conservatorship usually is limited to financial decisions, as opposed to guardianship, which gives the guardian control of every aspect of the elder's personal life.(9) Conservators and guardians may abuse their victims by converting the victim's financial assets to personal use.

A survey of various financial institutions with elderly clients revealed that 83 percent suspected that some of their elderly clients were victims of financial abuse. Forms of suspected abuse included exploitation of the elders' finances by substance-abusing relatives, roommates, or boarders; misappropriation of cash or belongings; and abuse of power of attorney.(10)

A power of attorney authorizes a person to act on an elder's behalf in legal or financial matters for a specific period of time.(11) The power of attorney becomes void should the elder be ruled mentally incapacitated. A related legal construct, the durable power of attorney, remains in effect even if the person becomes mentally incapacitated. Both types are often abused. In fact, a 1994 survey of attorneys and service providers for the elderly revealed that two-thirds of the 410 respondents reported cases of abuse of the durable power of attorney. Thirty-eight percent had knowledge of five or more cases.(12)

A survey of a small number of banks in the New York City area is particularly revealing. Banks reported that the most common forms of financial exploitation their elderly customers encountered were forgery, misappropriation of funds, abuse of joint accounts, and abuse of power of attorney. The respondents listed the most common abuser as a relative of the victim. Unfortunately, only 43 percent of the banks said they always reported the abuse to Adult Protective Services. In fact, 43 percent never reported the abuse, and 14 percent only reported sometimes.(13) Yet, bank employees may stand the best chance of recognizing the signs of financial abuse.

Clues to Financial Elder Abuse

Law enforcement officers investigating suspected financial abuse can look for certain indicators of criminal activity. These include:

* Unusual activity in a bank account, including activity inconsistent with the victim's ability, such as the use of an automatic teller machine on an account of a bedridden elder

* New acquaintances of the elder expressing a desire to reside with the elder

* Loss of amenities, such as the disconnection of utilities, when the elder is known to afford such amenities

* New signees or unusual activity on credit cards

* Suspicious signatures on documents, particularly if the elder is capable of writing.(14)

Cases can come to an investigator's attention from a variety of sources, including social service agencies, medical personnel (such as home health-care nurses or emergency medical technicians), neighbors, acquaintances and relatives of current victims, as well as from victims themselves. Unfortunately, many of these sources also can be possible offenders.

The scant amount of research on traits of offenders and victims, including the authors' analysis of cases from their jurisdiction, suggests a certain profile for each. A slight majority of victims (over 60 percent) are likely to be elderly white females over age 70. Offenders are often relatives, many of whom depend on the elderly victim for housing or other forms of assistance.(15) Many offenders have substance abuse problems that factor into their crimes. Perpetrators are represented almost equally from both sexes and are often the children or grandchildren of the victim.

Combating Elder Abuse

Elder abuse can be hard to detect and difficult to prosecute. Some elderly victims may be reluctant to prosecute their offenders; some make poor witnesses in court; others seem to tolerate their abuse knowingly. As tough as these cases may be, this type of crime warrants serious attention by law enforcement.

The Triad program probably is the most recognized effort by law enforcement to address the needs of the elderly.(16) Triads consist of the county sheriff, local police departments, and senior citizen groups working together to solve problems inherent to the elderly. With the Triad in place, the partners form an advisory council known as Seniors and Law Enforcement Together (SALT) to identify the particular needs of the elderly within that jurisdiction. The council provides seniors with a vehicle to express their needs and a way to participate actively in matters that directly affect them. Triads provide training to help law enforcement address the needs of the elderly. They also arrange seminars for senior citizens designed to lessen their chances of becoming victims of financial abuse. To date, 472 active Triad programs exist throughout the United States.(17)

The Adopt-a-Senior program of the St. Martin Parish, Louisiana, Sheriff's Department provides another example of law enforcement working directly with the senior citizen population. Deputies are encouraged to "adopt" two or three seniors in their jurisdictions and visit them regularly to check on their well-being. The deputies inquire as to any unusual mail, telephone calls, visits, or solicitations the seniors may have received. This program is well-suited to the community-oriented policing philosophies adopted by many law enforcement agencies.

Despite these success stories, much more needs to be done to combat elder abuse. Several strategies, if implemented, can serve as a springboard for successful crime prevention programs.

First, police need additional training in the recognition and apprehension of elder abusers. While most officers eventually make cases of physical or sexual assault on criminals who victimize the elderly, fewer officers make cases of financial abuse because they have not been trained in the abuse of conservatorship, guardianship, power of attorney, durable power of attorney, and other methods offenders use to prey upon vulnerable old people. In-service training or investigators and patrol officers would lead to more cases made against offenders, and police training academies should consider incorporating this training into their curricula.

Second, forming investigative coalitions and sharing information among social service, law enforcement, and financial institutions can increase the number of successful cases brought for prosecution.(18) For example, a free seminar provided by police for the employees of local banks on recognizing financial elder abuse and reporting suspected cases to law enforcement would increase the number of cases reported. Furthermore, improved interaction between local police and social service personnel likely would lead to more criminal cases of financial abuse, as many social service agencies simply do not criminally pursue their known cases.

Third, creating laws that require people who suspect abuse to report their suspicions to authorities can combat elder abuse. Forty-three states have laws that mandate over 50 different agencies and job titles to report elder abuse. Most mandatory elder abuse reports to police are made by health-care providers, especially home health-care providers.(19) Some states have combined mandatory reporting laws with legislation that allows elderly victims to sue their perpetrators for reimbursement of attorneys' fees and court costs in exploitation cases.

Interestingly, employees of financial institutions do not have to report suspected financial abuse, even though they may be in the best position to uncover it. Adding financial firms to the list of mandatory reporters could prove a valuable weapon against abuse.

A fourth anti-abuse strategy concerns educating the elderly to recognize financial victimization. How would the police accomplish this? The same way crime prevention officers educate other citizen groups on community watch programs, business security, and other topics. Crime prevention officers can schedule financial victimization prevention lectures with local senior citizen groups, American Association of Retired Persons chapters, Veterans of Foreign Wars groups, and other similar organizations. Such seminars provided by crime prevention officers could be combined with financial planning seminars given by estate planners or financial counselors. The latter type of seminar would explain strategies of financial management for maximizing income and protecting against asset loss and exploitation.

A final strategy for fighting elder abuse involves programs for offenders. To keep offenders from repeating their crimes, judges could make convicted offenders participate in mental health counseling designed to combat the psychological roots of offenders' exploitative behavior. Counseling may serve a behavioral corrective function and prevent serial offending.


Financial elder abuse is widespread but often escapes police attention. To prevent further proliferation of this abuse, law enforcement officers need a better understanding of the various forms financial abuse takes and what can be done about it. In-service training, investigative coalitions, effective legislation, innovative crime prevention seminars for the aged, and proper treatment of offenders can protect elderly victims from the crimes that threaten their quality of life.

Police agencies can expect to see elder abuse become more of an enforcement priority as the graying of our nation's population continues and greater numbers of the aged are preyed upon by others. Elderly victims need police protection to help them savor the golden years that they so richly deserve.


1 The National Center on Elder Abuse, in "Most Victims of Adult Abuse Age 60 or Over," Florence (Ala.) Times Daily, Sunday, July 14, 1996, 4B.

2 Ibid.

3 Beletsha Shiferaw, Maurice B. Mittlemark, James L. Wofford, Roger T. Anderson, and Priscilla Walls, "The Investigation and Outcome of Reported Cases of Elder Abuse," The Gerontologist 34 (1994): 123-125.

4 Rosalie S. Wolf and Karl A. Pillemer, Helping Elderly Victims: The Reality of Elder Abuse (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

5 Jerry A. Hyman, "Financial Abuse and Legal Assistance," NARCEA Exchange. Newsletter of the National Center on Elder Abuse (Dover: Auburn, 1990).

6 Paul A. Blunt, "Financial Exploitation: The Best Kept Secret of Elder Abuse," Aging Magazine, no. 367 (1996): 62-65.

7 Ida M. Johnson, "Family Members' Perspective of and Attitudes Toward Elder Abuse," Families in Society 76 (1995): 220-229.

8 Margaret F. Hudson, "Analysis of the Concepts of Elder Mistreatment: Abuse and Neglect," Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect 1 (1989): 5-25.

9 William H. Overman, "Preventing Elder Abuse and Neglect Through Advance Legal Planning," Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect 3 (1991): 5-21.

10 Candace J. Heisler and Jane E. Tewksbury, "Fiduciary Abuse of the Elderly: A Prosecutor's Perspective," Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect 3 (1992): 23-40.

11 Richard L. Douglass, Domestic Mistreatment of the Elderly - Towards Prevention (Washington, DC: American Association of Retired Persons, 1995), 22-23.

12 Debra Sacks, "Prevention of Financial Abuse Focus of New Institute at the Brookdale Center on Aging," Aging Magazine, no. 367 (1996): 86-89.

13 Supra note 10.

14 Supra note 10.

15 Karl A. Pillemer and David Finkelhor, "Causes of Elder Abuse: Caregiver Stress Versus Problem Relatives," American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 59 (1989): 179-187.

16 Betsy Cantrell, "Triad: Reducing Criminal Victimization of the Elderly," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, February 1994, 19- 23.

17 Betsy Cantrell, Triad program manager, National Sheriffs' Association, Alexandria, Virginia, interview by author, August 21, 1997.

18 Congress, Senate, Special Committee on Aging, Society's Secret Shame: Elder Abuse and Family Violence, Hearing Before the Special Committee on Aging, 104th Congress, 1st sess., April 11, 1995, 43-54.

19 Supra note 4.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Little, Bobby
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Previous Article:Police use of nondeadly force to arrest.
Next Article:The Chief Operator Teen Driver Program.

Related Articles
Relative downfalls behind elder abuse.
Law enforcement gerontology.
Elder abuse: a national tragedy.
Elder abuse cases hit home with jurors.
Not wanted.
Handling elder abuse and neglect cases.
Reaching out to protect elders. (Not-for-Profit Report).
Nursing home resident abuse underreported and unpunished, government finds.
Fighting back: CPAs on the lookout for Elder Abuse.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |