Wednesday, January 2, 2008

It's Time For Strong Action Against Elder Abuse

By Tammerlin Drummond, STAFF WRITER

FOR THE last eight days, Theft of Elder Nation has detailed the widespread financial exploitation of California seniors.

We hope that this editorial investigation has opened your eyes to a disgraceful national epidemic that has caused, and continues to cause, widespread suffering.

We also hope that reading these stomach-churning stories about the rampant mistreatment of defenseless old people has made you angry and that you will add your voice to our call for the reforms. We urge readers to write, e-mail, fax or call their local, state and federal elected officials.

We all realize legislation alone can't possibly solve such a complex, social problem. That we've got to get more serious about enforcing laws that we already have on the books and being more alert to the problem.

But we believe that fixing weaknesses in existing laws and drafting new ones is a good place to start.

One of the biggest problems is there is nothing illegal about intentionally exploiting the mental or physical weakness of an elderly person and taking his or her money — so long as there is no fraud or misrepresentation involved.

As far as the law is concerned, if a senior consents to a financial transaction, there is no crime. But in many cases, it should be a crime. Seniors who have diminished mental capacity are as incapable of understanding the implications of a financial transaction as a child.

Norman Roussey agreed to take out a mortgage on his house to give a man he thought was his friend $175,000. But he clearly didn't comprehend that by doing so, he could lose his house — which he did — when his friend broke his promise to make the payments.

It's time that the Legislature recognized using undue influence for the crime that it is and amended the theft codes to make it a prosecutable offense.

Until it does, our prosecutors will be powerless to act in many elder financial abuse cases, and these serial abusers will be free to continue their criminal assaults.

It's not as though the concept of undue influence is something out of left field. It's already enshrined in California civil code, and victims of elder financial abuse can sue their abusers for damages.

It's time that lawmakers rolled up their sleeves and began to address an issue that is crucial to so many of their constituents. Let us not forget that California, with 4 million seniors and counting, is home to the nation's largest elderly population. Here are our suggestions:

On the state level:

Lawmakers need to convene a panel of experts to address ways to repair California's broken power of attorney laws. Right now, a power of attorney is a blanket license to steal. There is no government oversight over these powerful documents that give one individual instant access to all of another person's assets.

We must find a way to make power of attorneys available to those who truly have an elderly person's best interests at heart but limit the amount of damage that elder abusers can cause, armed with this powerful document.

The Legislature should consider expanding the list of people required to report suspected elder financial abuse, to include title officers and others who, through their contact with elders, are likely to detect abuse.

It should pass a law that would make foreclosure rescuers spell out in plain, bold language that when a person signs an equity sales contract, he or she becomes a renter and will no longer own his home. The law should require the recording of equity sales contracts with the county. And people who want to sell their equity ought to be required by law to have credit counseling with a HUD certified adviser.

On the federal level:

Congress must stop wasting time and pass the Elder Justice Act that has been languishing in the Finance Committee. The vital legislation, supported by the AARP and other elder justice advocates would guarantee federal funds to Adult Protective Services and others who are fighting elder financial abuse on the front lines, and it would help increase national awareness of elder financial abuse.

On the county level:

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julie Conger's innovative Elder Protection Court is a model for the nation. Her court, the only one in the country that deals solely with elder and dependent adult abuse, has helped thousands of elder abuse victims get justice.

Every county, including Contra Costa, ought to create an elder court.

The Office of the Public Guardian is responsible for protecting seniors who are unable to provide for their own basic needs and/or unable to handle their finances.

In these cases, the public guardian is appointed for those who don't have a family member able or willing to care for them — or in instances when that relative is accused of abusing the senior.

Yet in Contra Costa County, the office hasn't been able to accept new clients since April. Why? Because the agency is operating with a skeleton staff, and frantic warnings from public guardian staff about the looming crisis went unheeded for years.

The fastest-growing segment of the county's population is people 85 and older. Where are they supposed to go when the Office of the Public Guardian, through no fault of its own, has to turn them away?

Because of changes in the probate code, beginning July 1, all public guardian agencies will be legally required to request an appointment for an elder if there is an imminent threat to a person's health or estate.

If Contra Costa keeps on its current path, it will be in violation of state law.

The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors — and specifically the board's Family and Human Services Committee — must act now to increase staffing levels at the Office of the Public Guardian and provide funding for this critical agency.

It is an outrage that county supervisors have let the situation deteriorate to the point that it has.
Our elders worked hard and sacrificed to care for us. Yet rather than expressing gratitude, too many of us treat our seniors with disrespect and deceit.

If only for selfish reasons, we all ought to care about fighting elder abuse — because one day, if we live long enough, it might just happen to us.

Tammerlin Drummond is an editorial writer for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay. Her e-mail is


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