In 70 percent of the cases in which older adults are victims of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, the perpetrators are family, friends and caregivers.
It’s one of the reasons that cases often go unreported.
Mitzi McFatrich, executive director of Kansas Advocates for Better Care, said it’s difficult for seniors to report a child or caregiver to an agency or police because they don’t want someone they care about to go to jail or face public embarrassment.
“Many people aren’t willing to take that step so it’s not a surprise that they fall victim,” she said.
Older adults also don’t want to reveal that they’ve been mistreated or snookered. Others can’t speak out because it was part of their court settlement.
For 37 years, Lawrence-based Kansas Advocates for Better Care has been a voice for these older adults. It provides resources and referrals and works to improve the quality of long-term care.
“All of us are very much in opposition to abuse, neglect and exploitation, but I’m afraid there’s also a real unspoken acceptance that’s just how it is,” McFatrich said.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families (formerly the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services) launched a public awareness campaign this summer to let residents know what they can do to prevent abuse and to assure residents that it is investigating reports of abuse and neglect. It operates a 24/7 hotline — 800-922-5330 — and calls are screened by a licensed social worker to see if they meet the criteria for investigation.
“Certainly, we want to be involved in folks’ life but we don’t want to be over-intrusive, so it has to meet the statutes and definitions of a vulnerable adult and they have to give us authority to intervene,” said Gina Meier-Hummel, director of DCF Prevention and Protection Services.
She said DCF investigates cases that occur in the community, but it forwards cases involving facilities to the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services.
Between July 2011 and June 2012, DCF received 15,208 reports. Of those, 10,388 were assigned for investigation by an DCF worker. Of those cases 41.5 percent involved self-neglect; 20.4 percent, abuse; 16.7 percent, exploitation; 16.4 percent, neglect; and 5 percent, financial abuse.
There were 327 reports investigated in Douglas County, including 35 in June. Meier-Hummel said those reports are not open to the public.
She said DCF’s goal is to serve vulnerable residents and they work collaboratively with law enforcement and other agencies. Signs of adult abuse include bruises, other physical marks, saying someone hurt them, drastic loss in weight, increased depression or isolation, and new problems paying bills or for medications.
DCF is not the only agency that can handle reports of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation; others include law enforcement, the Kansas Attorney General’s office, the long-term care ombudsman and the Department of Aging.
In 2011, the Department of Aging received 7,085 complaints, and it made 469 reports to law enforcement.
Kansas Advocates for Better Care board members Barbara Braa and Evie Curtis, both bank trust officers, give presentations across the state about prevention of elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation.
Last week, Braa spoke to 40 people at Medicalodges, a nursing home in Eudora. Some of the cases of financial abuse she has handled have ended in convictions and jail time, which she described as satisfying.
In such cases, it’s not unusual for family members to misuse funds or belongings of their elders.
“It’s usually someone is using power of attorney to take control of the funds and then they use it for their own benefit. It’s that thinking of, ‘One for you and one for me,’” she said. “It’s usually that mindset of ‘It’s going to be mine anyway so why don’t I take it now?’”
Often, the money that should be spent on someone’s care is spent on new boats, houses and cars and then the elderly person ends up in the nursing home and unable to pay for care, so the taxpayers pay for it. Braa said that the state “is motivated to do a job for the taxpayers to try and keep people who need help in the right path to get help and the people who have been abused to shed some light on it.”
Curtis pointed out that seniors sometimes fall victim to outsiders because they are lonely. She said she worked with a women in her late 70s who met a man through a senior dating website and, over the course of several years, gave him $400,000. It wasn’t until her bank account was overdrawn that red flags went up. The case was reported to DCF and the police, but she was unable to recover any of the money.
“It was gone, gone because she wanted to be loved,” Curtis said. “Maybe $400,000 is the exception, but $8,000 here and $10,000 there, that’s happening all over.”
In another case, Curtis said an elderly woman had befriended a hairdresser and decided to give her entire estate to the hairdresser who helped care for her. Later, the elderly woman changed her mind and decided to put a bank’s name on it instead. So, the hairdresser brought the woman to the bank where Curtis worked and dropped her off in her wheelchair with a half dozen garbage bags full of her belongings and left.
“People whisper, ‘This can’t be true’ and it is,” Curtis said.
“People who are victims of abuse, neglect and exploitation probably will not speak up. We can hardly get them to report it because they don’t want people to know that they’ve been taken advantage of and they don’t want to lose their freedom and independence. It’s a two-edged sword.”
McFatrich said one of her biggest concerns is that, in half of the state’s 343 licensed nursing homes, actual harm to at least one resident was found during their latest inspection survey.
“I think that is really distressing and I think that people should be really outraged about that,” she said.
McFatrich said studies have shown there is a much higher incidence of death within 18 months of someone being abused, neglected or exploited. She said she received a couple of calls about a facility outside of Douglas County where two frail women had been dropped and were hospitalized. She said one of the incidents happened at the beginning of this year and that woman has since died. She said the other woman is currently hospitalized.
McFatrich said she won’t soon forget the call she received from a man who reported an incident in a nursing home where he was visiting his mother.
He said he saw an older woman who was left sitting naked in her wheelchair with the door open. When he saw the woman, he went to the nurses station and asked them to help her. They assured him they would, but when he passed her room 30 minutes later, she was still there and helpless. So, he shut the woman’s door and insisted that someone help her and they finally did.
“That woman was incredibly traumatized by that,” McFatrich said.
While these are extreme cases, McFatrich said she commonly receives calls about clothes, food and jewelry being stolen in facilities. She warned that anyone can become a victim. She was surprised to learn that an acquaintance recently fell for a scam and lost $3,000. The person received a phone call in the middle of the night from someone who claimed to be her grandson and said he had been in a car accident.
“I’ve often thought how does this happen to people,” McFatrich said. “Clearly, there are people out there looking for opportunities.”
HOW TO REPORT ABUSE AND FIND HELP
To report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult, call the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ Protection Report Center at 800-922-5330.
Other resources, include:
• Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services — 800-842-0078.
• Kansas Advocates for Better Care — 800-525-1782.
• Kansas Long-term Care Ombudsman — 877-662-8362.
• Kansas Guardianship Program — 800-672-0086.
• Elder Law Hotline — 888-353-5337.
If you would like to learn more about elder abuse and how to prevent it, presentations by the Kansas Department for Children and Families can be requested by contacting Leslie Huss, Adult Protection Services program manager, at 785-368-8105.