Fla. Officials Urge People to Call 9-1-1 if Elder Abuse is Suspected

By: Beth Reese Cravey / Mcclatchy

June 13—The 86-year-old man did not want to admit that his son was forging checks and stealing from him to support his drug habit.

The son lived rent-free with his father and 83-year-old mother, who had dementia, and was supposed to be helping care for them. The father never said a word about the thefts to his daughter.

Even when his daughter discovered the truth and asked him about it, the man could only nod in the affirmative.

“He sadly shook his head. He could not verbalize it,” said the daughter, whom the Times-Union is not naming to avoid embarrassing her parents. “It’s his child. Still to this day he would do anything for him.”

ElderSource, a Jacksonville-based senior resources organization that serves seven Northeast Florida counties, will have a seminar Thursday on how to prevent elder exploitation, abuse and neglect. Three speakers will share tips for protecting older adults against fraud, scams and physical and mental abuse.

As the number of elders in Northeast Florida increase, so do cases of abuse.

“In 2016 there were over 2,000 reports of elder abuse in Northeast Florida. We know this number is low as many cases are not reported,” said Linda Levin, CEO of ElderSource.

Often the senior is being exploited, abused or neglected by a family member. Other times a stranger is involved. And some cases are self-neglect, she said.

Such educational programs as the Thursday seminar “help to build awareness of the problem and tell people how they can help,” she said. “I hope people…engage in these opportunities. Anyone can make a difference—everyone needs to make a difference.”

At the 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville, Chief Assistant State Attorney Mac Heavener and Human Rights Division Director Octavius Holliday prosecute cases of abuse, aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly person or disabled adults, as well as cases of explotation of such “vulnerable adults.”

They meet monthly with representatives of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, state Department of Children and Families and Attorney General’s Office to monitor such cases, they said.

Criminal charges range from third- to first-degree felonies, with penalties at five to 20 years in prison and fines $5,000 to $15,000, depending on the severity of the case. Some charges, such as battery, carry “enhanced penalties” if the victim is age 65 or older, Heavener said.

As the 86-year-old man’s daughter found, many elderly people are loath to admit they are being abused or exploited. That’s the case in particular for members of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” who grew up in the Great Depression and fought in World War II, Heavener said.

“As a whole, that generation…is reluctant to say, ” he said.

The prospect of a criminal trial is another burden for the elderly, who may not be healthy enough to handle being in court or emotionally strong enough to make a public accusation, particularly against a relative, Holliday said.

“The bulk of cases are family members, so there is reluctance to throw those family members away and take action,” he said.

In addition, a fear of being removed from their homes prevents seniors from reporting abuse, he said.

To help prevent exploitation, Heavener said seniors’ bank accounts and credit card statements should be closely monitored. Also, he recommended caution with business offers, especially those that appear to target seniors.

“If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he said.

As for physical abuse, Holliday urged friends and family members of seniors to watch for any physical changes, such as bruises. Such evidence can even be spotted in video chats, he said.

Heavener and Holliday urged anyone who has concerns to report them to the Children and Families Department, which will investigate and call in police and prosecutors if warranted. In urgent cases, when the health or welfare of a senior is at risk, they should call 9-1-1.

“A lot of cases begin with a 9-1-1 call,” said Holliday, whose Human Rights Division with him and another full-time attorney also handles human trafficking, “racial animus” crimes and public corruption. “The sooner the report, the better.”

The case of the 86-year-old father being exploited by his son was resolved after a call to Children and Families and action by his daughter. By the time the state probe was begun, the daughter had ordered her brother to move out.

“My father did admit to being afraid in his own home,” the daughter said. “I have never been so angry in my whole life.”

The family did not press charges. Later, after his wife was moved to a dementia-care center, the father moved in with his daughter.

“What’s most important is my father and mother are safe,” she said. “I found out first-hand how difficult it is for elders. This could have gone on for years, the whole enabling thing.”

She urged other family members of seniors to look out for not only physical but behavioral changes, such as withdrawing. She said “do the right thing” for seniors, many of whom cannot or will not speak for themselves, even if it makes other family members angry.

“Caregiving is a role that often implodes sibling relationships,” she said. “Nobody is immune, everybody has got some disfunction in the family.”

ElderSource’s Levin also urged people to pay attention to the seniors in their lives, including those in their families, neighborhoods, churches and businesses.

“This is not a single person or family’s problem. This a problem for the community,” she said. “We need to look out for each other, take notice of what is going on with our neighbors and friends, church members and customers. If we notice a change in that person, reach out to them and if you have a suspicion, report it.

“It truly is a matter of life or death,” she said.

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