iAge

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Financial Elder Abuse by Banks, Casinos and Lawyers

The politics of elder abuse is dirty business.

We think we know a lot about who perpetrates elder financial abuse. They are usually men, relatives, if not sons, of the victim. They tend to have some alcohol/drug abuse issues, have unreliable work history, and are dependent on the victim for their livelihood. They are young poor lost male adults. 

This is the type of perpetrator that we prosecute. But this is not the only type of perpetrator that abuses older adults. There are more serious financial elder abuse crimes that remain invisible … or they are made invisible because they are just “too big too fail”: Casinos, banks, lawyers. These businesses are so elusive that, so far, there has not been one prosecution of financial elder abuse against any of them.

In 2011, in the most recent federal review of elder abuse by the Government Accountability Office, the report completely ignored abuse by casinos, banks and by lawyers. Health and Human Services and the Justice Department devoted a total of $11.9 million in grants for elder justice activities in fiscal year 2009. This is in addition to funds donated by charitable organizations such as the California Endowment to research elder abuse. However there is very little progress in terms of slowing down or preventing elder abuse, which is not surprising since none of these efforts are aimed at prevention. Prevention is difficult when the perpetrator is random, but the context changes if these abuses are institutional.

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What is required is a national policy with a long-term strategy. Although the Older Americans Act of 1965—50 year ago—has called attention to the importance of federal leadership in the elder justice area, no national policy priorities currently exist, which results in district attorney reacting to petty crime rather than institutionalized financial elder abuse.

Older adult abuse victims tend to be vulnerable. There are many meanings to this, and it usually stands as a euphemism—a nice way of say that the victim is demented or cognitively impaired.  But some older adults are still vulnerable without being demented.

A case in point. An 86-year-old woman who in the height of bank bankruptcies in 2010 went to take her money out of a local branch—the bank subsequently went belly up. The bank manager told her that this was not possible. In order to protect her, because of financial elder abuse laws, the banks have to be careful about such large wihtdrawals  by older adults. She was eventually allowed to transfer a maximum of $10,000, once a week; this is financial elderly abuse.

When casinos ply older customers with alcohol, giving them access to medication that impair judgment, and then making loans available so that the incapacitated customer can still play (and lose millions of dollars); this is elderly abuse.

When a lawyer changes the last testament and will of an older demented client so that the lawyer becomes the primary or sole beneficiary of their estate, this is financial elder abuse. These are all documented cases yet there is no known case where these have been prosecuted under elder abuse laws.

Why are we going for the low hanging fruits? District Attorneys need to fill in the vacuum left by the lack of national policy priorities. We need to go for perpetrators who are quietly doing more financial harm to older adults. We need leadership in developing a long-term policy before we are drowned in the deluge of elder abuse cases.

© USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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