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Finding Support in the Midst of a Tempest

By Lori Mars, JD

October 01, 2020

For most of us, the events of the past few months have infused our lives with a discomfiting sense of instability and uncertainty. Collectively, we are responding to pandemic-induced fear and loss, and confronting systemic racial injustice wrought from centuries of structural oppressions imposed on the African American community. On an individual level, each of us navigates our own personal trials. Yet, within the landscape of our various complicated lives, sometimes an incident can jog us out of our respective worlds and lend insight and meaning to the moment.

Nearly four months ago, during the NCEA’s World Elder Abuse Awareness Day activities and “Lifting up Voices” campaign, Art Mason, Director of the Upstate Elder Abuse Center at Lifespan in Rochester, New York, reached out to the NCEA to share the story of one of his clients. Art is a nationally known expert in the field of elder abuse and has handled thousands of cases through his thirty-year career as a social worker. This client’s experience stood out.

“Jane,” a retired social worker in her late 70’s, lived a cloistered life in a small home with few friends, and a niece who resided in another state. A few years earlier, Jane had been in a car accident which left her with physical injuries that limited her ability to independently bathe, ambulate, and perform household chores. Jane drew on the small financial settlement she received following the accident to support her modest lifestyle. The funds were insufficient to cover the cost of formal caregivers, so early this year Jane sought a referral from a neighbor for the name of someone who could provide in-home assistance. 

Seventy-year-old “Joe” showed up at Jane’s door. In exchange for room and board, he agreed to do yardwork at the home, while his 30ish girlfriend, a nursing student, would help with care needs two nights a week. As the ostensibly helpful couple began providing aid, Jane developed trust in and became dependent upon the pair. They would soon isolate her from outside contacts, disconnect her phone, and steal the treasured trinkets left to her by her grandmother. Unbeknownst to Jane, Joe misappropriated her credit card and incurred substantial undue charges. He also took her checkbook and forged her name on a series of checks and deposited the funds in his own account, defrauding Jane of approximately $42,000, most of her auto settlement and the funds upon which she relied to subsist.

Beyond the financial abuse, Joe violently sexually assaulted Jane repeatedly over months. Eventually, when Joe and his girlfriend briefly left the home, Jane crawled outside her door on hands and knees towards her driveway, begging for help. A neighbor saw her and called the police.

Joe, a convicted felon and sexual predator who had previously raped an older woman, was sentenced to 7-9 years in prison for his crimes against Jane. But Jane’s victimization persisted well beyond the abuse perpetrated. She suffered the psychological aftermath of the physical trauma. Exacerbating the harm inflicted and endured, Joe’s financial misappropriation of Jane’s savings left her destitute.

The trial court had ordered Joe to pay restitution in the amount of $42,000 and directed the bank to release the funds from Joe’s account to Jane. Two months after the order was issued, the bank refused to honor the directive, maintaining the court’s order was not written with the requisite specificity to compel them to discharge the funds. In a perverse twist, the bank required Joe’s consent to release the ill-gotten funds in his account. Unsurprisingly, he refused. With the pandemic-induced court closures in March, Jane had no recourse to petition the court to revise its initial order directing the bank to release the money.

To mitigate the extraordinary financial hardship to Jane, Art and his team of specialists at Lifespan, who had been providing emotional support and resources to Jane, helped her file a claim for compensation with the New York State Office of Victim Services (OVS). In relevant part, the law permits “vulnerable elderly” victims of crime who have sustained financial loss to seek compensation up to $30,000 if all other sources of assistance have been exhausted. Ironically, approximately two years earlier, it was Art and his team who successfully lobbied the OVS to increase compensation for financial loss incurred by older adult victims from a maximum of $500 to the current $30,000.

Jane, now 80, still struggles with the trauma of the past few months but, with the help of Lifespan counselors, is regaining strength and resolve. She is hopeful she will soon be recompensed for her financial losses. An inveterate social worker, she wanted her story told to help others and raise awareness of the prevalence and impact of elder abuse. To this point, greater understanding and collaboration among the judiciary, financial, and banking sectors are necessary to promote justice and avert revictimization.

As Art has done through his career with his many clients, he supported Jane’s recovery and lifted her voice for the world to hear. Through his tireless advocacy, he has helped facilitate social, economic, and legal justice for countless older adults who have been abused. His work serves as a reminder that change for the better is always possible and it is incumbent upon us all to steadfastly pursue elder rights and justice.

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