Rise in elder abuse cases has central New York searching for answers

Jun 11, 2014

With an aging population, elder abuse is becoming more prevalent across the country and in central New York. Financial abuse has become one of the most common ways people take advantage of older Americans.

Jenny Hicks runs a program out of Vera House in Syracuse that focuses on elder abuse, and says there’s a kind of déjà vu in an agency that for years has counseled victims of domestic violence.

“It’s very much like domestic violence was 35 years ago -- in the shadows," Hicks said. "People are just now starting to talk about elder abuse.”

Hicks says many of the same reasons that kept domestic violence under wraps for years are at work in the world of elder abuse. Most of the perpetrators are family members, children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews.

"So there’s a lot of embarrassment and shame over the issue," Hicks explained. "They don’t want their children going to jail. They’re issues of they love that child or family member who might be abusing them. They don’t want anything to happen to them, but they do want the abuse to stop.”

The numbers revolving around elder abuse are climbing rapidly. In Onondaga County last year, Adult Protective Services received 175 complaints, up 48 percent from the year before.

Barry Beck, the deputy commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Adult and Long Term Serivces says financial abuse can be very subtle, but can ultimately add up to thefts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"In one case, it was just a little bit of money at first, you know, Grandma, can I have whatever, whatever amount of money," Beck said. "And then it gets into taking control of bank accounts, and taking control of pensions and social security.’
             
Michael Kasmarek, the Economic Fraud and Rackets Bureau Chief in the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office, prosecutes these cases. He says the amount of money taken over time can become quite significant. One of the biggest problems they see are contractors taking advantage of older homeowners.

Kasmarek says elder abuse is also turning out to be one of the outgrowths of the explosion in heroin addictions across central New York.

“I’ve reviewed at least a half a dozen or a dozen cases, where an individual is brought in and confronted by police and confronted with what they did, and that’ll be their exact response," Kasmarek said. "It’s a heroin addiction and to feed it, I stole from my grandmother or grandfather.”

The state Senate is proposing legislative action to get a handle on things, according to state Sen. Dave Valesky, chairman of the Senate Aging Committee. The package that could be voted on by the end of this session attacks a couple of areas, including stiffer penalties in these cases, as well as giving financial institutions more power.

"So if there is a suspicion of abuse, banks and other financial institutions can say no, we’re not going to follow through on that, we’re not going to authorize that transaction, even if that person has power of attorney if there’s that suspicion," Valesky said. "Right now there’s not ability for banks to do that."

The other thing is public awareness. Hicks says only one in 35 incidents in the central New York region are reported.  That means there are likely 6,000 unreported cases a year. That’s where Vera House comes in. Hicks says anyone can call the Vera House hotline, just to talk about it.

“We’re there to listen to them and give them ideas," Hicks explained. "Help them navigate the systems. And it doesn’t mean that person has to move out of the house, but maybe there are protections that can be put into place. Somebody else handles their finances for them, it takes it out of the hands of someone who’s doing the exploitation. Maybe they don’t want their child prosecuted, but they do want control of their money again. There’s lots of things that can be done to help seniors suffering from this kind of abuse."

To help local seniors learn about the issue of elder abuse, a “Physical & Financial Fitness” presentation will be held Wednesday, June 11 from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Syracuse Moose Lodge, 1121 Milton Ave., Syracuse. Featured topics include a community overview of elder abuse, powers of attorney, avoiding scams and estate planning. The formal presentation will be preceded by a continental breakfast at 9 a.m. Several organizations including Upstate Medical University, Vera House and the Onondaga CountySheriff’s Office will host resource tables. No registration is necessary for this free event.