Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stealing From Elders is Easy, But Should Getting Off Be Just As Easy?

And that trait served her and her family well as she pushed to have a cousin charged and ultimately convicted of stealing her 89-year-old aunt's life-savings.
Marc Jeffery Hawk, a 54-year-old former county maintenance supervisor, pleaded no contest to four counts of embezzlement and one count of exploitation of an elder for taking $53,438 from his aunt's bank account.

He spent Earla Mae Cowan's life-savings at Harrah's Cherokee Casino, according to court testimony.

He is the first person in Western North Carolina to go to jail under a law aimed at protecting the elderly from financial exploitation.
But the conviction wasn't easy for Cowan's family.
At first, authorities didn't want to prosecute the case, and throughout the process, Buchanan said, officials suggested it should be handled in civil court.
Now she's hoping others will take notice of potential elder abuse and use a 2005 law aimed at protecting North Carolina's oldest residents.
“Be persistent,” she said. “And don't take no for an answer.”
Convictions for exploiting elderly or disabled adults are rare but on the increase

Few convictions

Investigators statewide brought 12 charges in 2006, the year after the new law hit the books, but prosecutors made no convictions, according to records from the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.Last year, investigators brought 84 charges and prosecutors won 19 convictions.

To win a case under the law, prosecutors must show that the defendant was in a position of trust and confidence with a person older than 60 who isn't able to take care of responsibilities that can include finances.

And the state must show the defendant used deception or intimidation to get access to the elderly person's money or property.

And the victims often aren't good witnesses because of disabilities such as Alzheimer's or dementia.

In the Hawk case, he had power of attorney over the victim at one time so it put him squarely within the statute's obligations for a caregiver.And, because of Cowan's age and declining mental capacity, she fit the statute's requirement for a victim

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office, at first, didn't want to investigate, citing a potential conflict of interest because Hawk had cleaned offices there in his job with the county maintenance department.Sheriff Jimmy Ashe asked District Attorney Michael Bonfoey to request the State Bureau of Investigation take the case.In the meantime, the family took their complaint to the Jackson County Department of Social Services, said Ann Buchanan, one of Cowan's nieces.
Investigators there, after looking at checks Hawk had written to himself from his aunt's account, requested a criminal investigation, Buchanan said.
The SBI declined to take the case. The Sheriff's Office started its own investigation about four months after the family tried to make the initial complaint.

The nature of exploitation makes winning a criminal case hard, said Michael Rich, director of the 30th Judicial Alliance, a group that advocates for victims of abuse in the state's seven western counties.

Often, he said, family members are the criminals and families don't want to bring charges against their own or spend the time it takes to get through the criminal court process.
He spent five days in the county jail and faces five years of probation. He also has to repay the money.
Buchanan said throughout the process, officials suggested the case should be handled in civil court. But that's not what the family wanted.

“We weren't after money for us,” she said. “We were after justice for Aunt Mae. We were just so afraid that this case was going to be eventually dismissed.”Rich said her experience is common.

“When it comes to financial issues, it appears to many in law enforcement and in the court system that these are civil rather than criminal issues,” he said. “Criminal charges mean an investigation that might involve hard work. A civil case means that the victim and his abuser are responsible for following through

A devastating crime

The crime devastated Cowan, her family said in a victim impact statement filed with the court.
“To have her bank account depleted was indeed financial ruin for our aunt,” they said. “However, the shock, disbelief, stress, disappointment, embarrassment, humiliation and loss of dignity wreaked devastation on which there is no monetary value.”

Cowan, a widow with no children, had always prided herself in staying out of debt.
When bills started piling up after Hawk drained her bank account down to just $18, she was humiliated, her family said.

Her family said she started to decline after the crime and blames the stress for taking her sprit.
She's now in a nursing home.Buchanan said without help from DSS and Rich's organization — and hard work from her entire family — her aunt might not have seen justice.

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