Many of San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood’s victims are unable to articulate their cases in front of a judge and jury. This would be a problem for a lot of prosecutors, but it doesn’t faze Greenwood. In fact, he encourages police investigators to bring him their most difficult cases of elder abuse, no matter how uncommunicative the victim or how sparse the evidence, because he knows that with some senior victims a few months can equal a lifetime. Greenwood heads San Diego’s Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit and, unfortunately, business is booming.
Although statistics on elder abuse remain sketchy, at least a million elderly Americans experience physical abuse each year. Another five million or more find themselves victims of fraud and financial abuse. That the numbers of known incidents do not come close to measuring the full reach of these crimes in the U.S. is indisputable: Many elderly victims do not or cannot report abuse incidents.
Medical advances and a higher standard of living have contributed to the burgeoning American senior population, with indications those numbers will continue to rise. And as the population increases, so will the number of elderly victimized by nursing home personnel, caregivers, con artists and family members. Law enforcement will need to up its games when it comes to investigating these increasingly common crimes.
And that can be problematic: Few agencies have units dedicated to cases involving this age group, but like child abuse and sexual assault, successful investigation requires both specific training and specialized skills. The majority of officers are not equipped to handle elder abuse on a routine basis, and in most cases the types of training needed may not be locally available.
That has to change, Greenwood says. He’s spent over 16 years prosecuting these crimes, working for the past decade with a special investigative unit of the San Diego Police Department. “These detectives know what to look for: They know how to freeze bank accounts, they know how to work with Adult Protective Services, procure medical records and confirm that an elderly person has a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s—all those things that help me as a prosecutor to go after the predator,” Greenwood says.
The Deputy D.A. instructs officers to refer cases to him immediately, even if they have a victim limited by mental capacity, rather than wait and build a case over time. It makes sense: The amount of time an elderly person has left to testify can sometimes be measured in weeks and months rather than years. And, says Greenwood, this applies whether the case involves physical or fiscal abuse.
Elder maltreatment, with its two distinct categories of crimes, remains unique from other avenues of abuse by requiring a specific set of investigative skills and resources. In addition to neglect and assault, seniors find themselves increasingly victimized by financial swindles. These crimes commonly involve con artists or caretakers, but the most frequent culprit remains the senior’s own family.
Law enforcement officers see so much human depravity in their jobs that the idea a child would intentionally leave a parent destitute isn’t even a shocker. What is shocking is how common experts think these cases are and how few perpetrators are caught and prosecuted.
Kevin Schwartz of the California-based firm Schwartz & Schwartz specializes in elder abuse litigation. Schwartz says while there’s more general awareness of these crimes, many people still fail to appreciate how real the risks are to them. “It’s always someone else’s family or friend at risk until it’s too late.”
Winsor Schmidt, J.D., L.L.M., and a professor of Family and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Louisville, says, “The increased risk of elder financial abuse by adult children is associated with such factors as the perpetrator’s unemployment, inability to drive and financial dependence upon the older person.”