Part 3. Also, read Part 1 and Part 2.
As with those who have endured other types of abuse, victims of financial elder abuse often feel they can’t or shouldn’t seek recourse.
Most commonly perpetrators of financial exploitation – which can range from stealing Social Security checks to taking over assets – are family members, caregivers or others known and trusted by those who are victimized. That can make individuals who are financially exploited all the more reluctant to come forward, and experts say perpetrators often bank on this or pressure victims not to speak up as well to keep their indiscretions from seeing the light of day – and stave off a day in court.
That betrayal by a family member or another trusted person is especially hard on those who are financially abused, said Sarah Barnard, a social worker who manages an elder abuse prevention program at WISE & Healthy Aging, a nonprofit social-services organization in Santa Monica, Calif. On top of that, many who’ve been financially exploited feel shame and guilt, and that may be reinforced by victim-blaming.
“It’s just people’s way of distancing themselves, saying, ‘Oh that wouldn’t happen to me,’” Barnard said. “People feel so much pain,” she added. “They feel like they can’t reach out and get support, because they feel like they’re not allowed to feel victimized in a way.”
But, as experts note, the widespread nature of financial exploitation shows it can happen to anyone. Increasingly, states are looking at new ways to legally address financial exploitation – to better address and deter this form of abuse as the U.S. population ages and, experts say, increasing numbers are vulnerable.
Most states currently criminalize financial elder abuse, said Matthew Andres, director of University of Illinois College of Law’s Elder Financial Justice Clinic, which provides free legal services to victims of financial exploitation. There are “enhanced” penalties or additional charges that may be filed in financial exploitation cases involving seniors or vulnerable adults that could increase jail time for perpetrators.
What’s more, Andres notes that a handful of states now have statutes in place allowing older or vulnerable adults – such as someone with cognitive or mental impairment – to sue specifically for elder financial exploitation; Andres said states with so-called elder financial exploitation civil causes of action include Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, Illinois and Washington. (In general, in cases where victims are deemed to be unable to act on their own behalf, due, for instance, to cognitive impairment like severe dementia, another person acting under power of attorney or a public guardian may file suit on their behalf.)
A key feature of elder financial exploitation civil causes of action is that they allow victims to sue for multiples of the amount lost – typically two or three times the amount – and also to recover attorneys’ fees for bringing the case, Andres said.
“It’s both to punish people more and act as a deterrent for this kind of behavior, but also to encourage settlement of these cases,” he said. “Somebody is more likely to give back 100 percent of the money that is taken, if they know that at the end of the case they may have to give back 300 percent of the money.”
In addition, being able to recover attorneys’ fees can help in finding a lawyer to take an elder financial abuse case, which can be challenging to litigate. “They’re complex cases and a lot of attorneys just don’t want to get involved in recovery – recovery may be difficult,” he said. “So rewarding attorneys' fees is important to help people get representation.”
Report Crime ASAP
In the rest of states without elder financial exploitation civil statutes, individuals can still sue to recover losses. But commonly they may not be able to recover more than 100 percent or attorneys' fees. Frequently property or money stolen is quickly expended, with nothing left to recover. That’s another reason experts say it’s critical that victims as well as anyone who suspects elder financial abuse report it immediately to authorities. Call local law enforcement or contact your local Adult Protective Services office to report financial exploitation – the earlier, the better to best prevent damages from mounting.
Don’t forget, too, experts say, that the cost of financial abuse goes far beyond the monetary loss. Rather, it should be treated like other types of abuse or trauma, Barnard said.
She explained, “Victims and their families should know that services like counseling and case management can help them heal and stabilize after being financially abused. The victim may need help with basic needs like reliable caregiving, food, transportation and housing.” This may involve getting help from numerous agencies; Barnard recommends looking up social services in their area to see what’s offered.
Therapy may also be helpful to address the fallout from financial abuse. Studies have found increases in depression and anxiety associated with financial exploitation, and experts say it may increase risk for suicide as well. Therapy can help address mental health concerns, Barnard said. “It can help elders process the shame and betrayal that many victims feel after being taken advantage of by those who they may have trusted.”
Robert Roush, a professor of geriatrics at the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, emphasizes the importance of this kind of “psychological first aid” to help those affected feel safe again.
In addition, it’s important that those who have been victimized don’t make any major financial decisions right away – such as in an attempt to try to recoup losses – says Roush, who is the medical project director for the Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program.
Instead, he said, the extent of the loss first needs to be determined, and it’s important to speak with professionals, such as social workers who deal with financial abuse cases, financial advisors and possibly with attorneys experienced in dealing with such cases – if considering legal action – about next steps.
Apart from taking action to recover monetary losses, experts say victims of financial abuse most especially need support to weather the storm and reduce the likelihood of re-victimization.
“Check in with vulnerable elders to reduce isolation and loneliness, as those are factors that increase their likelihood of being exploited,” Barnard said. That might include seeing if they’re interested in going to a local senior center or getting involved with a church they attend, she suggests.
Providing nonjudgmental support is critical to begin to address and recover in a holistic way all that was really lost, experts say, when a relationship was financially exploited to profit the abuser. As Barnard emphasized, “The vast majority of people who are financially abused get into that position because they are looking out for others.”
Michael O. Schroeder, a health editor at U.S. News & World Report, wrote this article, the first in a series, with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the John A. Hartford Foundation.
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