Metro Detroit Hardships Lead To An Increase In Senior Abuse

Unfortunately, the sting of our economy in Detroit, with the struggles of the automotive industry, has reached beyond individual consumers and into seniors’ pocketbooks. With the increase in unemployment, foreclosures and other difficult times, the Michigan State Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Attorney General have noticed a correlation in elder abuse. Not physical or mental abuse; but, financial abuse.

Most commentators agree that the best way to avoid access to joint accounts or misuse of funds is to establish an effective long term care plan that includes estate planning documents that contemplate planning for disabilities or governmental benefits. By working with an accredited individual or an elder law attorney you can put together the best defense possible against elderly financial abuse.

In todays Detroit News, I came across a great article on point. The article can be found here, or I have included it as an excerpt to this post.

Financial abuse of elderly rises as economy sinks
Advocates say stronger laws needed to protect money, property
Catherine Jun / The Detroit News
Wyandotte — Two years after Jeanette Cowie moved into an assisted living facility and gave her 30-year-old granddaughter control of her finances, the 78-year-old found her bank account nearly emptied and her rent unpaid for months.

Family members suspect the granddaughter. She was the only one with access to Cowie’s money. “We trusted her. We had no reason not to,” said Terri Cowie, daughter-in-law to Jeanette Cowie.

Hundreds of seniors across Michigan have similarly fallen victim to financial crimes. The number of suspected cases of financial exploitation of seniors investigated by Adult Protective Services has nearly quadrupled since 2000, totaling 1,316 in 2008, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services.

And as Michigan continues to sink into an economic chasm, senior citizens are a prime target for such abuse, social service workers say. Legal advocates say stronger protections are needed, ones that go even further than the legislative package proposed by state House Democrats last month.

“We need to get up to speed and protect the persons that are the most vulnerable victims that we have,” said Tom Wenzell, principal prosecuting attorney for elder abuse in Wayne County. In Cowie’s case, the granddaughter stopped answering calls and then moved, family members said. She did not return calls from The Detroit News for comment.

When people hear about financial abuse, many think of phony investment schemes or Internet scams.

But attorneys say just as common are instances of exploitation perpetrated by a loved one or friend.

Those offenses include swiping checks, stealing savings, and even defrauding seniors of their homes.

“When there’s financial exploitation, the three usual suspects are — in this order — family, caretakers and new best friends,” Wenzell said.

In 2003, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy established the county’s Elder Abuse Unit to exclusively handle such cases. In 2008, the team prosecuted 133 cases.

Senior citizens, who often are in poor health or suffer from failing memory, are more vulnerable to scams, experts say, and they are the least likely to prosecute.

“There’s not only the embarrassment, but there’s also the shame that someone in your family did this to you,” said Katy Graham, managing attorney at the Elder Law and Advocacy Center in Redford Township.

A shocking discovery
Johnny Watt, 82, added his 61-year-old daughter to his checking account to help pay bills when he found his health failing.

The retired longshoreman said he was shocked to find out she had withdrawn $240,000. When he contacted the police, he was told he would have a tough time making a criminal case since she was authorized to access the account.

“I’m a hard-working man … and now this happened in my old age,” Watt said. “All I want is my money back.”

Watt’s daughter did not return calls for comment.

Even in a poor economy, seniors usually have steady income — Social Security and sometimes pension checks.

“Seniors have a set income coming in,” said Cynthia Farrell, administrator of adult services at the Department of Human Services.

“Those become prime areas where you look for money.”

Seeking justice often is difficult, especially when the senior signed a document agreeing to hand over power of attorney.

That soon could change.

Safeguards proposed
Among a package of bills introduced last month by Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, is a proposal that would require those exercising power of attorney to sign a statement accepting responsibility for transactions that could be deemed unauthorized or criminal.

Another proposes establishing felony charges for obtaining a signature through fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or coercion. The House is expected to vote on the bills sometime this month.

But some observers say those amendments still fall short of what’s needed.

“Elder abuse is where domestic violence was 15, 20 years ago,” said Wenzell of Wayne County.

He said the law has yet to view elder abuse as a crime, rather than a family dispute.

In recent months, the Cowies have used loans to pay the balance on the rent at the senior home to prevent Jeanette Cowie, who has been diagnosed with dementia, from being evicted.

The granddaughter was removed from bank accounts, and they contacted attorneys, who told them recovering any losses would be difficult.

“The blessing for (Jeanette) is she doesn’t really remember it,” said Terri Cowie. “I don’t think right now she even remembers her money is gone.”