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Attorneys shine a light on the growing problem of elder abuse in Minnesota

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo and Assistant Anoka County Attorney Deborah Hilstrom talk specifics about elder abuse, and about strides that have been made in curbing it.

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo and Assistant Anoka County Attorney Deborah Hilstrom in Palumbo’s office at the Anoka County Attorney’s Office.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Reports of elder abuse are cresting as baby boomers’ parents age and their sometimes sketchy offspring and other opportunists navigate an uneasy economy – so much so that in 2006, the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations launched World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (June 15), which seeks to highlight what law-enforcement experts say is a largely under-recognized and under-reported crime.

The highest profile elder-abuse case in Minnesota thus far has been that of former Maple Grove council member LeAnn Sargent, who was sentenced last year after being convicted of a gross misdemeanor for cheating her dying father out of more than $120,000. In 2012, Dawn Kulbeik was one of the first people to be charged under a Minnesota law that made it a felony to withhold nutrition to a vulnerable adult.

That law was passed in 2012 and enforced in the Kulbeik case by Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo, who has been on a mission to let the public know about the growing problem of elder abuse in Minnesota, often comparing the crime to child abuse in terms of both its secretive nature within families and the act of loved ones taking advantage of vulnerable family members.

Palumbo is co-founder of Minnesota SAFE Elders, an educational and community service group that trains social workers and law enforcement workers in the particulars of the crime. He was also instrumental in the founding of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center at his alma mater, William Mitchell College of Law, which sponsors an annual conference in conjunction with World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (this year’s conference takes place at William Mitchell Friday, June 12; for more information go here).

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MinnPost sat down this week with Palumbo and Assistant Anoka County Attorney Deborah Hilstrom in Palumbo’s office at the Anoka County Attorney’s Office to talk specifics about elder abuse, and the strides that have been made in getting the word out on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day:

MinnPost: How prevalent is elder abuse, and what should people look for if they suspect it’s happening in their family?

Tony Palumbo: There are three questions that professionals in the field want people to ask when dealing with older Americans, as they call them: 1) Is anybody taking your money without your permission? 2) Is anyone hurting you? 3) Are you afraid of anyone? If you ask those three very simple questions, you may gain at least a foot in the door as to what’s going on in many a vulnerable adult’s life. I do several lectures a year, and I lead with that.

If you think something’s going on, one of the signs you look at is, have they quit doing something that they regularly do? For example, attending a church group or paying their rent on time. People of a certain age are creatures of habit, and if they’re not doing it and there’s no particular external reason for why it’s not happening, such as illness or a stroke or something, then those are the three questions we ask friends or family to ask.

MP: How do you and law enforcement winnow it out? It’s a very under-reported and -prosecuted crime.

TP: We believe that it is; again, how much crime is out there? We don’t know until you find out. Estimates are that about $3 billion a year is lost to financial exploitation nationally. The population is growing, and they estimate by the year 2030, 19 percent of the population will be 65 and above, so that’s one in five. Those are the people that have all the money, because they’ve saved and they’ve sold their houses and they’ve got a lot of money.

MP: It’s really an unprecedented generation, too, in terms of accrued wealth in America. That post-war baby boom and economy led to a lot of enduring family wealth, the likes of which may never happen again.

TP: That’s exactly right. For the first time in our nation’s history – or in world history, actually – the middle class has never, by any stretch of the imagination, had that kind of money in the past. Now they do; medicine is allowing people to live longer; as you live longer your mental acuity begins to deteriorate, and you’re in charge of a lot of money and your mental capacity is that of a 12-year-old. The temptation to take advantage of somebody like that is overwhelming.

MP: I’m sure it’s dicey because the exploitation often is being done by family members, and you have to determine if they are actually being taken advantage of or if it’s a case of finances being a private family matter.

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TP: We’re dealing with a case now where a grandchild took money from a vulnerable adult who died. The grandchild had been taking money out of the vulnerable adult’s account, unbeknown to the rest of the estate. We’re looking at how to pursue that case.

MP: And how does that come to you?

TP: That one came to us because the facility who had been caring for the grandmother made a report, because they discovered there were financial irregularities and she had not been paying her bills.

MP: Deborah, there are plenty of cases where it’s not being perpetrated by the family, yes?

Deborah Hilstrom: Correct. We have two open cases we’re working on now where facility workers were stealing drugs from the seniors.

TP: We have a case that’s resolved now where a person in her 60s gets power of attorney for the elderly parent, and this person started taking money out of her parent’s account and started giving it to her children to the tune of $125,000; the estate believes it’s more like $250,000. The horrible part of that one is that one of the defendant’s brothers was in dire need of medical treatment, and didn’t get that, and passed away and there appeared to very little remorse. That’s pretty typical: Person gets power of attorney and starts paying the bills, and then starts taking care of himself, and that is in violation of the law: If you are given any fiduciary responsibility for a vulnerable adult, any money spent must be spent on their care and nothing else.

MP: What have people been doing with the money?

DH: Gambling, we’ve seen some gambling. In one case, [the criminal] was trying to buy property for himself and trying to sell the vulnerable adults’ home right from underneath them, and we stepped in and got Adult Protection to stop the sale of the house. They would have been out.

MP: Tony, you’ve compared it to child abuse. What are the similarities?

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TP: I would say that the abuser, or the defendant, obviously doesn’t have any regard for the victims, and they justify or try and rationalize what they’re doing. With child abuse and physical abuse because of discipline it’s, “He or she had it coming.” With a vulnerable adult they’re doing it because that person has just become a pain in the neck and they just want to get rid of them. With financial exploitation, they justify it because they think they’re going to get the money anyway (from the parents’ will), and they need it now so it’s not really a crime.

DH: Also, with child abuse cases, the person is often related and the victim doesn’t want to lose the love and care of the person who is exploiting or taking advantage of them. They still want to be with that person. They may not want us to intervene.

TP: They just want the bad things to stop, but they don’t always want bad things to happen to the person who did them to them. They just want it to stop, and that’s very similar to child abuse cases. I’ve prosecuted many, especially sexual abuse cases, where the young girls would want it to stop, but they wouldn’t want to see anything bad happen to the abuser.

When I would go speak to schools about child abuse, I’d open with the same three questions we talked about earlier. There would be 30 kids in a class, and as soon as I told them what my topic was, three heads would go down. Every time. Because those three kids knew what I was talking about. The other 27 were, “Oh my God, really?” And these three kids who put their head down, when I said, “Are you afraid of anyone?” and they put their head down, that’s as much as answering, “Yes.”

MP: How many elder abuse cases are you currently working on?

DH: Right now, I have 15 open cases and two sitting on my desk, waiting to be reviewed. I have three cases that are awaiting sentencing.

TP: I have some statistics: Since 2013, we’ve charged out nine felony cases involving elder abuse; two cases involve physical injury to a vulnerable adult; seven cases involving some sort of financial injury; nearly a quarter of a million dollars was swindled in the course of these seven cases, and seven of the nine suspects were family members of the victims, and five cases are still open.

MP: You’ve been training officers for a few years now in the fight against this. What do you tell them to look for?

TP: One of the things you look at in every elder abuse case is the isolation that the victim is put into from anybody who has any sort of ability to change the situation. In one situation we had, the son-in-law stopped all his father-in-law’s mail and actually tied up his father-in-law’s walker so the guy couldn’t leave the house and took all his in-laws Social Security payments for himself.

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MP: What are the penalties for this? It doesn’t seem like it’s enough. Probation is all these people are getting, right?

DH: It starts out based on the amount of money you’re stealing. If it’s a thousand dollars, you hit the felony mark and it increases from there. But unless you have a lengthy criminal history, they are probation cases and not typically prison cases.

MP: I’m reminded of the Tolstoy quote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Do you ruminate on the nature of families in your work, or is it purely clinical at this point?

TP: Anecdotally speaking, I would say the overwhelming majority of families do the right thing and a small minority, when they don’t do the right thing, they really don’t do the right thing. What we see, many times, especially in the recession, would be son loses job, son gets divorced, son moves back with mom, son takes care of mom because the rest of the siblings are busy with their lives; mom has come to depend on son, grants him power of attorney and then looks the other way when son starts writing checks to himself.

And you know who turns him in? The siblings. So what you usually have is a little bit of an intra-family battle going on for people who feel that their mother is not being treated fairly by this ne’er-do-well brother of theirs. And that family sometimes goes through the entire spectrum of, “Oh just leave him alone” to “By God, hang him” and everything in between, and that’s reflective of families all over America, just in general.

MP: Knowing what you know about people, what do you know about humanity? Does it color your view about your fellow man and woman?

TP: Greed is everywhere, and as long as we have people who always want money, they’re going to exploit and take advantage of people. We’re seeing the financial crimes, more than property crimes, on the rise because it’s far more lucrative to steal money this way than it is to rob a gas station or do a drug deal. And why not? You steal $35,000 and only get probation or a few months in jail.

DH: Well, what it does it shows you that there are people who report, right?  There are people who call and step in and it shows that you have the ability to stop the bad things from happening. In one case we stopped the purchase of a house. They were paying down their own debt to qualify for a loan on a house and then they were going to use the vulnerable adult’s money to make the mortgage payment. And they weren’t sure if the vulnerable adult was going to get to live there when they were done.

But it shows you that when the community comes together, you can do some incredible things to protect vulnerable adults and that people will step in and do the right thing.