Elder abuse division of district attorney's office trying to help
By Matthew Penix St. Tammany News Covington,LA,USA
When an elderly Slidell couple opened their front door to Annette Torregano in 2004 they thought an angel had arrived.
She was a charming, wide-eyed, smiling woman and proved to be an stellar home health caregiver as she catered to somewhat demanding commands from Louis Polizzi, a retired Slidell doctor whose health was declining. Louis’ wife Jane, who had recently suffered a stroke that left her debilitated and on oxygen and feeding tubes, also posed challenges.
But Torregano fetched food, ran errands, bowed to sometimes barking orders and changed Jane’s tubes for $15 an hour, family members said. She quickly became part of the family, knowing intimate details of their lives. She built a trusting bond. She was a friend, they thought.
Then, when Louis was 82, just three months shy of his death, she swindled at least $46,000 from his frail grasp. He never saw it coming.
“She was on a path,” Louis’ daughter, Antonia “Toni” Polizzi, said. “At that point she had my dad’s trust completely.”
The Polizzi case is one of dozens of elder abuse cases reported in St. Tammany each year and one of millions reported nationwide involving the felony crime punishable by 10 years in jail under Louisiana law.
“We’re suppose to be living in the most affluent community in the state, and the bad guys go where the money is,” said Ralph Oneal, president of Seniors and Law Enforcement Together, a St. Tammany advocacy group for elder rights. “We are just primed for it.”
And with seniors among the wealthiest age group in America, more and more are moving to St. Tammany, where home caregivers rank among the top five fastest growing jobs locally, according to the parish’s District Attorney’s office.
Coupled with the fact most caregivers don’t submit to rigorous background checks and only 7 percent of cases are ever reported, it’s become a seemingly free ride for all for criminals, Oneal said.
“It’s probably one of the most unreported felonies in the country,” he said.
But it’s growing in scope. Elder abuse cases increased almost 20 percent between 2000 and 2004, according to the Delaware-based National Center of Elder Abuse, an advocacy group for elder rights.
And the same organization estimates that anywhere between 1 million and 2 million Americans older than 65 “have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care.”
For many, the Polizzi case was elder abuse pure and simple. For prosecutors, however, the case wasn’t as cut and dry.
While Louisiana has a law to battle elder abuse, exploitation of the infirmed, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, the law is rarely used. Only one such case has been successfully prosecuted in the 22nd Judicial District Court.
“If you asked district attorneys around the country if they use (the law) they will say no,” said Harold Bartholomew Jr., a prosecutor with the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office in Covington.
The reason is, he said, many elderly victims are reluctant to prosecute loved ones, 50 percent of which are the perpetrators. This dispels a misconception that the majority of violations are in nursing homes.
Many times the elderly who are abused also have dementia, routinely forgetting they were beaten or that they loaned hundreds to thousands of dollars and were never repaid, leaving prosecutors without a witness. Others are afraid of retaliation or worried that, since they’ve been swindled, it signals a loss of independence, Bartholomew said.
“It’s much more complex than somebody stuck a gun in somebody’s face and stole money,” he said.
That, coupled with the fact that many law enforcement officers aren’t adequately trained to recognize elder abuse, leaves the exploitation charge rarely used. Instead, theft and battery charges are often levied.
That’s when Bartholomew steps in.
In 2005, before hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Bartholomew was tapped by District Attorney Walter Reed to head a new elder abuse division. At that time Reed’s was only the second such office in the state to offer such specific services. Now there are 41 statewide, largely piggybacking Bartholomew’s tiring crusade to spread the message.
“They really spearheaded the campaign to get elderly abuse prosecution on the map,’ said Trent Garrett, a staff attorney at the Louisiana District Attorneys Association.
It’s that association Bartholomew has given seminars through, with 400 district attorneys in the audience. He’s spent countless hours consoling victims, not necessarily to get convictions, but to solve the problems. In the meantime, he’s become one of the nation’s foremost experts in the field, Oneal said.
“He’s really breaking some new ground,” Oneal said. “There is fertile ground here, and many now realize this is an area that needs to be filled. You can take a lot of that back to Harold’s doorstep.”
For Bartholomew, the drive is much simpler. He wants results.
His own grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, and he wonders how he would feel if a family member stole her life savings, or worse, pummeled her to death.
“We all get old if we are lucky,” he said. “What if this was you?”
So Bartholomew spends his hours consoling victims who are scared of retribution or of sending a family member to jail. Instead, he looks for the easiest solution – blame the criminal prosecution on him.
“So now grandmothers are off the hook,” he said. “And now I’m the bad guy…. They come in afraid but leave with hope.”
He admits it’s not always easy to tell a grandparent he’s going to prosecute their grandchild. But it’s part of sending a message to would-be criminals: This crime won’t be tolerated, he said.
“Part of me feels like an ogre, but at what point do you draw the line?” he asked. So instead “we’ve moved the line.”
Polizzi give thanks to that notion.
Although court records reveal Torregano stole $46,000, Polizzi believes it was more likely between $75,000 and $100,000, including a new 2005 Honda Accord Louis bought her with promises she would one day repay him.
That day never came, Polizzi said.
Polizzi’ suspicions soon ran high. She continued to fly back to Slidell from her New York home once a month to check on her parents, and more importantly, the caregivers.
It’s then she started noticing small things missing – guns, narcotic painkillers and more that she can’t pinpoint on anyone. Then on Father’s Day 2007, while rifling through her father’s checkbook, she noticed the check numbers skipped in sequence. Someone, she realized, was stealing money.
“That was the beginning of knowing something was wrong,” she said.
She called the bank and noticed six checks totaling an undisclosed amount had been debited from her father’s account, three of which were written and forged by Torregano.
She presented her father with the evidence, and a criminal case snowballed. Police were called. Interviews were conducted. And a search of Torregano’s home produced Louis’ missing painkillers, resulting in a drug possession charge that Polizzi said was later dropped.
Three months ago, under Bartholomew’s prosecution, Torregano pleaded guilty to theft and was given a seven-year suspended sentence. She only spent one night in jail.
But the message was sent, Polizzi said. Meanwhile, on Jan. 25, Louis passed away, some of his last memories likely of a caregiver’s betrayal.
Now Jane is left a widow and in a nursing home. Polizzi moved home to help out and is renovating her parents’ home, the home she grew up in, wondering how the fiasco ever happened.
“You have to trust somebody, but who?” she asked.
“I just hope this story brings some light to others.”
Monday, June 16, 2008
Elder abuse division of district attorney's office trying to help