The Changing Landscape of Elder Abuse Prosecutions: A 22-Year Journey
By Paul Greenwood, recently retired prosecutor at San Diego DA’s office and now a consultant and trainer on criminal elder abuse issues.
October 30, 2018
It was late November 1995. I was happy prosecuting back to back jury trials as part of our response to the California Three Strikes legislation. Then I got the call that changed my career. I was summoned to the District Attorney’s office where I was told that I would be prosecuting a crime that Adult Protective Services [APS] had said we were ignoring. It was called elder abuse. I gently inquired as to what that was and received a quick response – “go talk to APS”.
As I settled into my new assignment in January 1996 I started looking for other elder abuse prosecution units across the country. There were none – just a handful of individual prosecutors primarily in California, led by Candace Heisler in San Francisco.
There were no training manuals and hardly any available resources that I could tap into.
How times have changed!
In the subsequent 22 years that have elapsed during which I had the privilege of heading up the San Diego DA’s Elder Abuse Prosecution Unit, I have seen a dramatic improvement.
Today prosecutors and law enforcement have an abundance of materials at their disposal to assist in the investigation and prosecution of criminal elder abuse cases. One such outstanding example is the newly released Elder Abuse Guide for Law Enforcement [EAGLE] operated by the National Center on Elder Abuse. Another great tool is the Elder Justice Initiative created by the Department of Justice.
The quandary that we face is not where to find the information but rather whether to make elder abuse prosecution a priority.
It is no exaggeration to say that elder justice is fast becoming a critical national issue. Demographics, availability of technology to seniors, the opioid epidemic, and the expanding number of dementia patients are just a few factors that have combined to create the perfect climate for predators. Elder abuse has been called the “crime of the 21st century”.
Are we ready for the challenges ahead?
There are positive trends that suggest that some state and local prosecutors are preparing for the anticipated avalanche of cases. More and more prosecutors are eagerly attending trainings through webinars and conferences. Some State Attorney Generals – notably in Kansas, Ohio, Oregon and Wisconsin – have given this crime high visibility by establishing initiatives which are designed to encourage more collaboration between county prosecutors and deputy attorney generals.
Several prosecutor offices around the country have discovered that the most effective way to combat this escalating crime is to participate in a multidisciplinary environment. As a result, we are seeing elder death review teams, Financial Abuse Specialist Teams [FAST], and Vulnerable Adult Specialist Teams [VAST] emerging where prosecutors are either taking the lead or actively contributing.
Of all the various types of criminal activity that are covered by the term “elder abuse” there are two major areas where prosecutors are struggling to find solutions. Financial elder abuse is exploding and many of the perpetrators are able to hide in anonymity thanks to the proliferation of such internet ruses as romance, IRS, sweepstakes and grandma scams. Moreover, many exploiters are using nontraditional methods to steal from their elderly victim and then claiming that the transaction represents either a gift or a loan. We are having to find new ways to argue lack of consent aggressively and effectively and also educate ourselves as to the ways in which undue influence impacts this crime.
Secondly, we are still figuring out how to uncover, investigate and prosecute crimes – particularly sexual abuse – that occur in long term care facilities. Prosecutors need to reach out to the various state agencies that oversee the issuance and revocation of facility licenses along with the Long Term Care Ombudsman programs. One priority is to establish how information that identifies criminal activity can be quickly shared with law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies.
We have come a long way since January 1996. No longer are prosecutors asking the question “What is it?” But as we witness an unprecedented expansion of crimes against our senior citizens, the two questions that every prosecutor must ask are: “Am I prepared and am I willing to make fighting this battle a priority?”.