Silence protects thieves while victims suffer
|Forum: Financial abuse of seniors|
|•||Sunday: Law makes it hard to protect Isles' seniors|
|•||Yesterday: Family ties can conceal crime|
By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Rob Perez
Raymond Harvey's financial abuse probably never would have been detected had it not been for his younger sister.
She hardly fit the profile of a gumshoe.
She was 82 at the time, in ill health and lived on the opposite end of the country.
But when Terry Maurer suspected something was amiss with her brother, who was 88, suffering from dementia and living at an O'ahu care home, the South Carolina resident defied her doctor's orders and in early 2001 flew to Hawai'i to investigate.
She was so spent by the cross-country trip that her grandson, David Spangler, came from the Mainland to help her.
They quickly got a court order allowing them to remove Harvey from the care home. After doing more digging, mostly by Spangler, they reported their suspicions to the state Attorney General's Office.
In 2004, the attorney general successfully prosecuted two of Harvey's caregivers for stealing thousands of dollars from him.
"If it wasn't for my grandmother, who knows how long this would have gone on," Spangler said.
Exploitation of seniors is so underreported that authorities have no accurate sense of how widespread it is. But everyone agrees it is a serious problem that only will get worse unless more people like Maurer take action.
Although major gaps in the protective net for seniors exist, the underlying impediment is that too few people are willing or able to step up and report cases of financial abuse, experts say. Without those reports, law enforcement has no opportunity to enter the picture, and abusers are free to continue abusing, often targeting the same victim multiple times.
"I try to tell (people), if they don't report it, the next person will be victimized," said Christopher Van Marter, Honolulu's deputy prosecuting attorney and chief of the white-collar crime unit.
The vigilance that Maurer and her grandson showed in acting on their suspicions was unusual.
More typical was the response in the case of an elderly woman whose adult son was stealing her Social Security checks, leaving the victim, who was in her 80s, with no money even to buy food.
John G. McDermott, the state's long-term care ombudsman who eventually intervened in the case, said the woman's neighbors knew about the thefts as they were happening over the years but said nothing. Because the mother was unwilling to turn in her son, the neighbors didn't intervene, McDermott said.
"That's a real common attitude in Hawai'i — 'It's not my business, it's a family matter, so I won't say anything,' " McDermott said.
Instead, the neighbors, who lived in a small Neighbor Island community, regularly took turns bringing food to the elderly woman so she wouldn't go hungry, McDermott said.
The abuse finally stopped when the woman fell ill, was hospitalized, then was moved to a nursing home. At that point, McDermott discovered what was happening and, along with social workers, told the unemployed son they wouldn't hesitate to call police if he continued exploiting her.
Even if the reluctance to report is overcome, reporting suspected abuse doesn't guarantee results. The report may not even trigger an investigation because of a restrictive state law dictating when Adult Protective Services investigates abuse allegations.
"It's extremely difficult to go after financial elder abuse," said Kathleen Wilber, a University of Southern California professor of gerontology. "To have a very high bar makes it even more difficult."
Diane Terada, division administrator of Catholic Charities Hawai'i, which provides services to seniors, said expanding the law would be helpful in preventing cases from falling through the cracks. But if the law is going to be changed, Terada said, APS needs more resources to handle a greater caseload.
"It has to be both, otherwise the law is empty," she said.
A FRAGMENTED NETWORK
Other changes that some elder advocates believe would help boost protections for seniors includes providing better coordination of what is commonly considered a fragmented network of public and private services available to the elderly.
People involved with elder advocacy organizations for years have talked about the need to better coordinate efforts among service providers, government aging offices, law enforcement agencies and others. They say seniors need a better way to find out what services are available or who to call for help.
Despite such talk, big gaps in the network remain — so much so that Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, a key supporter of elder assistance programs, believes a law is needed to give the coordinating responsibility to a specific agency so the issue won't continue to languish.
"For the most part, we're all working in our own silos," agreed Derrick Ariyoshi, coordinator of SageWatch, a healthcare fraud prevention program within the state's Executive Office on Aging.
Some progress is being made.
The Hawai'i County Office of Aging is preparing to open a one-stop aging and disability resource center that will house key government decision-making agencies that deal with financial abuse, long-term care and other elder services. It is a pilot project that, if successful, would serve as a model for the other counties.
"If you have one stop, people won't have to fill out the same forms over and over," said Alan Parker, director of the county office. "People won't have to be referred all over town. And this would solve one of the biggest problems, which is people don't know where to call."
The new center is scheduled to open in March or April of next year. The county still is trying to determine all the tenants who will be in the leased building.
SageWatch also is preparing to start a senior fraud squad possibly as early as January that would serve as a one-stop office for taking reports statewide about suspected elder financial abuse.
It plans to partner with the FBI, Better Business Bureau, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and other organizations, and the office would refer calls to the appropriate investigating agency, monitor the cases, and compile much-needed data, according to SageWatch's Ariyoshi.
WEAK ABUSE LAWS
Enacting tougher laws dealing with financial abuse is also needed to better protect the elderly.
Hawai'i has a state statute that permits enhanced sentences for people who commit violent crimes against an elder victim. But the state has no similar criminal law for those who financially abuse the elderly, though the federal system has such a statute.
Van Marter said the prosecutor's office next legislative session will propose amending the existing enhanced-sentencing statute to extend the same protections to elder financial abuse victims.
To underscore the need for such an amendment, Van Marter cited the case of Robert Hayes, who stole more than $500,000 from his cancer-stricken mother, then 65, and got six months jail time and five years probation.
If the enhanced-sentencing law had applied, Hayes would have received a 10-year prison sentence, with a mandatory minimum of 40 months behind bars.
"In our view, it's unacceptable for people like Robert Hayes who steal half a million dollars to get probation, especially when their victims are elder persons," he said.
On the civil side, Honolulu attorney Tom Grande several years ago lobbied for an Elder Justice Act that would have given Hawai'i seniors who were financially or physically abused by an individual the same protections as seniors who were defrauded by merchants.
In the latter case, a senior who brings a lawsuit against a merchant can get triple damages and attorney fees if the litigation is successful. The recovery of attorney fees makes such cases more economically feasible for private lawyers, creating a disincentive for merchants to target the elderly in fraud schemes.
Grande proposed establishing the same civil protections if a senior were victimized by an individual, believing private litigation likewise could provide a disincentive against financial abuse even if authorities didn't pursue cases criminally. The provision was deleted from the bill.
"We have a segment of the population that is susceptible to such abuse, seniors who are not able to protect themselves like other segments of the population," Grande said.
The long-term care industry objected to the provision, telling legislators it could have unintended consequences of raising insurance rates and ultimately hurting efforts to attract more caregivers to an industry in which Hawai'i already has a shortage.
"That was a lot of our concern," said Chun Oakland, D-13th (Kalihi, Nu'uanu).
To further buttress protections for seniors, elder advocates say law enforcement agencies need to become more aggressive in prosecuting financial exploitation.
As it is now, too few cases are prosecuted, and even when they are, victims rarely get restitution, advocates say.
Christopher Young, deputy attorney general in charge of criminal prosecutions, agreed that law enforcement agencies historically have not been aggressive in pursuing elder financial abuse. But that, he said, is changing.
"A report made today would be looked at and evaluated," Young said. "Whereas five years ago, if that same report came, it would be looked at as a civil issue."
Elder advocates say they are seeing encouraging signs of change.
Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state and county levels, for instance, recently started meeting regularly to discuss identity theft and fraud cases, looking for the worst offenders who often target the elderly. Prosecutions have resulted from those efforts and others, signaling that law enforcement is paying more attention to the issue, elder advocates say.
The prosecution of Raymond Harvey's abusers was more evidence of that.
Lance Evers, who ran a respite program, and Elvira Pineda, who operated a care home where Harvey stayed, were convicted in 2004 of stealing roughly $20,000 from Harvey.
The caregivers got Harvey, a retired accountant, to sign checks even though, because of his dementia, "he had no idea what he was signing," according to Spangler, his grand-nephew.
"For me, it was infuriating, the idea that anybody would for their own benefit prey upon the elderly and basically try to steal or bilk them out of their entire life savings," Spangler, 39, said in a telephone interview from his Minnesota home.
Although the state could only show about $20,000 in stolen funds, Spangler said more than $100,000 was missing from his grand-uncle's account.
Maurer began to suspect something was wrong when Harvey missed his annual Christmas call to her in 2000, according to Spangler. Once Maurer tracked her brother down at his new care home and called him from South Carolina, she became more suspicious because he didn't sound like his normal self, Spangler said. That's when the elder woman decided to fly to Hawai'i.
Once here, Maurer and Spangler arranged through an attorney to meet with Harvey. When Evers left the room, Harvey, who was dehydrated and in bad physical shape, told Maurer he was terrified and wanted out of the care home, Spangler said.
Within a few days, they got the emergency guardianship appointment and had Harvey removed and flown via chartered jet to South Carolina.
'WE'RE NOT PREPARED'
Evers pled no contest to theft and money-laundering charges and was sentenced last year to 105 days in jail, five years probation and ordered to pay $13,000 in restitution. Pineda, who pleaded guilty to a theft charge, received five years probation and was ordered to pay $6,500 in restitution.
Spangler said Pineda paid her judgment, but Evers stopped making monthly payments in August after only about $300 was paid. Evers did not respond to requests for comment made through his attorney.
Pineda could not be reached for comment. But she admitted in court documents that she cashed checks from Harvey that Evers gave her.
"I should have questioned Lance Evers, and I should not have used the funds unless it (sic) came directly from Mr. Evers," she wrote.
The last check Pineda got from Evers was for $1,500, but a week after she cashed it, she reimbursed Harvey's account for the entire amount, according to her statement.
"I knew what Mr. Evers was doing was wrong," Pineda wrote.
As Hawai'i's elderly population continues to grow, advocates say the state clearly needs to do more to fight the growing tide of financial abuse. Otherwise, they say, the ramifications will become overwhelming in the years ahead.
"The lid's going to boil over simply because of the sheer numbers," said Marilyn Seeley, a senior-services consultant. "And we're not prepared."
Reach Rob Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org.