Ladyjustice had the pleasure of featuring Sergeant Mark Varnau of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department as the first guest on Shattered Lives,” taped on Saturday February 11th. Elder abuse and financial crimes are rising to the level which occurred in domestic violence/intimate partner violence ten years ago. It is no longer hidden away “behind closed doors” as often as before. However, although these crimes of neglect and abuse among families and caretakers are being exposed more often, they still do not garner the publicity that they deserve. They may not appear to be “sensational” in nature and therefore, they go unreported or hidden on the back pages of the local newspaper. However, the “Shatter’ is there!
Listen to the 30 minute show SHATTERED LIVES:
In San Diego County alone, approximately 25,000 cases of elder abuse are reported to Adult Protective Services per year. Those that meet the criteria for criminality are 1,000 to 1,500 cases, a mere 10 to 15% of that total. Ladyjustice believes that we must not lose sight of the fact that there can still be concern and dysfunction taking place within the confines of any domestic situation. Therein lays the “no man’s land” in which we as concerned citizens and neighbors MUST infiltrate if we have suspicions before any situation gets to the level of legally defined abuse and neglect!
Sargent Varnau’s Department deals with crimes involving family members and/or caregivers for crimes of neglect and abuse which take the form of theft or assault (65 years or older) or those who are considered developmentally disabled from 18 years and above which meet the California statuary guidelines of Elder Abuse.
With respect to financial crimes… these are a quagmire for sure and very difficult to prove. Given the scenario in which a caretaker spends the money of an unsuspecting elderly person (whether they have cognitive and memory deficits due to neurologic disorders like dementia or CVA/stroke) and perhaps are under the influence of medications, it must be proven that taking of the money wasn’t done for the sole benefit of the client/patient. In such cases involving transactions with cash, a history must be established, in addition to proof that actions were egregious before a prosecutor will consider taking the case.
The prevalence of elder abuse and neglect tends to fall along demographic lines depending upon who is involved. If a child is nearby and serves as the primary caretaker, the abuse/neglect is usually perpetrated by a family member. However, many elderly persons live in distant states from family, are often private, not forthcoming about their challenges or may be embarrassed about their inability to manage independently. It is also very difficult for family members to try to assist their parents from out of state…and therefore they must rely on others.
Foe those residing in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities, any behavior that would be deemed suspect, falls within the purview of the Department of Justice as such facilities are regulated and investigated by that entity.
How do they fall prey to neglect and abuse? Lack of financial resources, compromised decision making, inability to ambulate and get out of the house to have contact with others… other than the primary caretaker…. Often large sums of money may be lost as the abuser, whether family or an appointed person sells the home, alters or takes funds from insurance policies. Caretakers can ensure that their criminality is not discovered by overmedicating the person in their care as well. The elderly are also very vulnerable to professional thieves who target them with various scams that the public has come to recognize.
Sargent Varnau discussed one line of defense for elders which can be and is very effective. An elderly person’s network of friends and neighbors who are familiar with their comings and goings and daily habits can be an invaluable tool should something go wrong! Ladyjustice says do not underestimate this and shrug it off as “a nosey neighbor.” In a pinch, such information could help in a life or death situation! The social life of a senior, keeps them active and stimulated. When they suddenly drop out, the Elder Abuse Unit can take the call and respond within ten days. However, if the matter appears to be more urgent or you as a caring observer or neighbor see “red flag occurrences” such as suspicious people/cars hanging around, or lack of response at the home, calling your local police for a welfare check may be the most expeditious way to treat the situation.
Sargent Varnau related that California has no Silver Alert System. Elders are part of the overall system of missing adults. The DOJ system may enter the elder’s information into a teletype, but the fact that the person is a senior, does not automatically register a special urgency. They assume that as adults they have full capacity to reach out to others…or may just walk away on their own. [LJ- As we know, such assumptions often prove deadly!] Currently approximately 32 of the 50 states have a designated Silver Alert system.
From Ladyjustice’s former blog, “Silver Alert – Where’s Grandma,” an excerpt/ brief history follows:
History & Legislation of Silver Alert
Silver Alert is an outgrowth of the Amber Alert system and is a public notification system in the U. S. designed to broadcast information about seniors with Alzheimer’s, other dementias, mental illness and developmental disabilities (Depending upon the State).
In 2005, the Silver Alert system was introduced at the State level by Representative Fred Perry of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which “Amber Alert for Seniors” became “Silver Alert”. In March 2006, through a series of legislative initiatives, Silver Alerts were added to the statewide alerts by law enforcement and media outlets. It was signed into law by Governor Brad Henry in April, 2009.
Use of public notification systems to locate seniors intensified as a result of the disappearance of Mattie Moore, a 68 year old woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, she was found 8 months later. Her body was discovered just 500 yards from her home. The city of Atlanta enacted a program called “Mattie’s Call” – coordinating emergency management initiatives, law enforcement and broadcasters to disseminate urgent bulletins.
Another example of the earliest pursuits of the Silver Alert system was in the State of Florida. Mary Zelter was an 86 year old woman from Largo who drove off from her assisted living facility never to return. Her body was located in the intercostal waterway near a Clearwater boat ramp. Her car was found submerged. This event spearheaded the creation of a Silver Alert pilot program in Pinellas County and an eventual statewide program.
Federal legislation was introduced by Representative Lloyd Doggett in May 2008. This bill’s purpose was to integrate and enhance existing Silver Alert systems and encourage others. Other efforts were attempted by legislators in North Carolina and Florida. Finally, a comprehensive bill passed in September 2008 in the House of Representatives on a “voice vote.” However, Congress adjourned prior to a vote in the Senate.
The next bill known as the “National Silver Alert Act” was re-introduced by Congress as H. R. 632 on February 11, 2009. According to silveralert.org, the prevalence of Silver Alert programs nationwide number 32 from Alabama to West Virginia. The inclusiveness of “at risk” populations, administrators, age requirements and specific legislation can be viewed at: http://nationalsilveralert.org.
In San Diego, they take assault on an elderly person seriously. State law gives police the power to arrest a family member or caretaker even if they “allegedly” assaulted the person under their care. Complicated situations arise in which we have people living for extended periods where the “child” batterer may be in their 70’s caring for someone on their 90’s. Each case is handled individually with discretion. However, it is not atypical to take both parties in for a mental health evaluation versus immediate arrest if necessary.
One of the best deterrents, Sargent Varnau states, is jail time for the first time offender or “first time caught offender” in preventing further occurrences. However, it is by no means foolproof, as we have seen in intimate partner violence, the cycle continues. The elderly parent may take the abuser in again as they are “biologically related” regardless of the potential toxicity of the relationship and continue to abuse. However, if time is on their side, the offending child winds up in jail for two or three years, while another caring family member may take over and provide continued safety for the elderly person.
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department interfaces with Adult, Aging and Independent services, the Probate Court system and all other allied agencies designed to assist in the care and welfare of the elderly. They make an effort to educate the community… to perform community outreach concerning these issues with public speaking, posters, website information and use of media. However, elder abuse may be too pedestrian, not sexy enough for the front page of the newspapers…. That’s where “Shattered Lives” comes in…
A parting and very worthwhile message offered by Sargent Varnau is not to be afraid to make the tough decisions in such situations. Be a good neighbor, go the extra mile, make a call if it “doesn’t feel right” or make changes in the life of the senior you care about even though it may not be convenient! You could be saving a life!
If you live in San Diego County, and need assistance or have questions concerning this topic, Contact Sargent Mark Varnau at: http://www.sdsheriff.net/co_elderabuse.html.