The call is a familiar one: Check the welfare of a child, who neighbors suspect is being physically abused. Nearby residents have heard screams and haven t seen the child in some time, and they re rightly concerned. You arrive and first speak discreetly with the neighbors. When you make contact at the house where the child lives, you re met with firm resistance by a parent (or a relative or the boyfriend/girlfriend of the parent; you re not quite sure, but he or she won t let you in).
Based on the information from the neighbors and your fear the child has been or may be being harmed (otherwise known as exigent or emergency circumstances), you push past the uncooperative parent and enter the house. You find a scared, bruised five year old, who tells you mommy s friend has made those bruises. Out come the handcuffs and one or more arrests take place.
Let s change this scenario slightly. The call is the same, except the potential victim is not five, but 85. Is your response to the potential for harm any different? No. You have the lawful right and the legal duty to check on an elder s welfare, just as you must for a child suspected of being mistreated, neglected or abused.
In many elder-abuse situations involving either a caregiver or a family member, it s critical that you verify the emotional, physical and, in some cases, financial well-being of the victim, regardless of how much the alleged caregiver objects.
Of course they want to keep you out of the house, keep you from speaking to the victim or otherwise prevent you from doing your job as a cop. Although it s not in their best interest to let you see the elderly person s living conditions (e.g., trash, excrement, bed sores), the bruises, broken bones, missing hair (e.g., from being forcefully pulled out) or the missing family heirlooms, cash or pension checks, it s in your best interest (and your duty as a mandated reporter, in nearly all states) to respond, ask questions, investigate all potential crimes and check on the health and viability of any elderly person under the care or control of someone.
There are three primary ways elderly people (who are defined differently in each state; your individual laws and descriptors may vary) can be victimized. First, family members can perform physical or emotional abuse, neglect their health and basic needs, and/or steal or embezzle their money or property.
Pay attention to the signs of physical abuse from a family member toward an elderly victim, just like you would for a potential domestic violence victim. This could include bruises, cuts, burns and injuries received when the victim was pushed, grabbed or struck.
You should suspect neglect when the victim is living in filthy conditions, has untreated wounds or bed sores (even small ones can prove fatal), is not clean or is malnourished.
Theft and embezzlement cases can include Social Security scams, in which a family member/suspect cashes a victim s social security checks (even after their death), taps into the victim s checking, savings or investment accounts, or steals the victim s jewelry, property, vehicles or even their home. All of this is done under the rationalization that these suspects deserve the ill-gotten money or stolen items, or they ll pay it back, or they ve deluded themselves into thinking the money or property was given to them as a gift.
Second, hired caregivers can engage in physical or emotional abuse, neglect their health and basic needs, and/or steal or embezzle their money or property.
Many siblings have devoted much of their later adult lives trying to care for their aged parents, grandparents or other relatives. When these tasks become too trying, they often turn to a firm in their town that provides elder care services. Although the majority of these companies try to screen the people they hire and send into the homes, you can guess that more than a few dozen rotten eggs slip through.
Few states in this country have had the courage or good sense to pass a law requiring criminal background checks for all caregivers. Some state prison systems even offer classes in elder care to prison inmates as part of their vocational rehabilitation.
In many cases, looks can be deceiving. Your suspect in a financial or abuse case could be a 50-year-old woman working as a certified nursing assistant, a 22-year-old male college student making some part-time money or a supposedly model/church-going citizen who has been ripping off or hurting the victim for several years. Elder abusers come in all shapes and sizes, so don t misjudge potential suspects on the basis of appearance or community standing. Discovering a caregiver has a criminal past as a parolee or probationer should not surprise you.
Some caregivers use the guise of being the victim s new boyfriend or girlfriend. Not surprisingly, some street prostitutes with and without drug habits have found that befriending an elderly man with the promise of sex can get them the free cash, stolen goods and cars they need to get off the streets for a bit.
Third, professional con artists like to use such well-known schemes as the Jamaican Switch con, the Bank Examiner con or telemarketing lottery scams, which promise the victims a large prize if they will only send in an administrative fee or pay the taxes. Other con artists, sometimes called gypsies or travelers, specialize in auto body or auto/tire repair scams in public parking lots (so-called Bondo Bandits ) and home-repair scams, such as painting addresses on curbs, driveway resurfacing and roof repairs, all of which either never happen or the victim is charged exorbitantly for shoddy work. Once one of these potential home diversion burglars (or worse, a group of them) gets inside an elderly person s house, you can expect the visible and hidden cash, jewelry and other valuables to disappear quickly.
These people have a knack for spotting potential elderly victims in every neighborhood. If you come across these suspects, make creative arrests, get good intelligence information, take photos of all suspects and their associates, and impound their vehicles, if possible. Look for the fruits of their crimes, including tools, phony receipt books, lots of cash and evidence they are living in and working out of their cars.
One creative officer on the West Coast arrested a Bondo Bandit who tried to extort money from an elderly victim using the Penal Code section for operating an unlicensed auto repair shop. Not surprisingly, the suspect had numerous aliases and warrants. To say these people are good at playing the name game is an understatement.
A number of law enforcement groups around the country exist, such as the National Association of Bunco Investigators ( www.nabihq.org ), and can provide suspect information, expert help and support if these groups begin to target the elderly in your town.
Have patience with your victims. They are usually embarrassed, prideful, forgetful, scared and/or fearful their cooperation will make things worse.
For physical-abuse cases, take good photos during your first response and again several days later, if possible. If the victim is hospitalized, speak to the attending physicians about the type and severity of the injuries.
For financial crimes, collect anything that looks like evidence, including credit cards and statements, ATM photos (which may be available from the bank for only 30 days), bank statements and annuity or investment account information.
Run your suspects for recently pawned items. See if they possess property the victim didn t realize was missing. It s common for these suspects to sell the stolen items at pawn shops near where they work, not always near where they live. Focus on the pawn shops nearest to the victim s home.
Look at each of the victim s checks in sequence to see if the suspect may have removed a check from the bottom of the checkbook so it would not be noticed. Note if the suspect has had the victim sign several blank checks without amounts, under the guise that the caregiver is going to use the checks to buy groceries for the victim.
For neglect cases, it s better to document the scene by taking comprehensive video of the kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and other living areas. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a thousand pictures to a jury.
Make creative arrests to get these people out of the house. Run all suspects for warrants, criminal histories, probation and parole violations, gang membership and DOJ hits. Find legal reasons, including warrants and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, to take them out of contact with the victim before any more physical or financial damage can occur.
Get consent (or better yet, a telephonic search warrant) to search a suspect s vehicle. Depending on the state law in your area, you may need only the victim s consent to search a suspect s room if they re living on the premises and not paying rent.
Keep in mind that these cases may have more than one suspect; multiple relatives or caregivers from different shifts may work together to victimize the elder. Thus, you ll want to always interview the victim alone. Like child abuse and domestic violence cases, separate your victims from any potential suspects before you ask your questions.
Just like for your response to domestic violence or child abuse cases, you should already have a list of agencies and after-hours resources to call, including your county s Adult Protective Services (APS), county social workers and social service providers, and mental health hospitals. In most states, it s mandatory to notify your local APS of suspected elder abuse within a specific time period. Your conversations with them will often reveal earlier APS reports of abuse or neglect. You may find many more witnesses and other suspects this way.
See if the elder victim can show you (or you can find among their personal effects) a list of personal phone numbers for (legit) family members, clergy or their on-call physicians.
For detectives and officers on follow-ups, it s useful to audiotape all interviews with the victims. The sad reality is that these cases can be long and complex, and the victim may recant to protect a family member or suspect.
Be patient during the victim interviews. Elderly people can be tangential storytellers, and you ll need to try to keep them on track. It may help later for you to create your own diagram of the potential suspects surrounding the victim, including family members, new friends, new love interests, new lawyers happy to make fresh estate plans, annuity-pushing financial advisors or any other people who have magically appeared during the same time the money started disappearing. Contact legitimate family members for the length, type and amount of access from these relationships. As one veteran elder abuse detective puts it, It s always, always, always about the money.
Have your ducks in a row when it comes time to formally interrogate suspects. Have copies of forged or altered checks from the bank, bank statements, pawn slips, dates and times of deposits or withdrawals, ATM videos or other proof that your suspects were in possession of goods or monies that were not theirs to control.
Let your suspects talk first, and ask them to describe all of the assistance they provide and what, if any, monies they receive from this. This can help you prove your case when you confront missing dollars or property, and they can t legally explain how they came to possess the money or goods in question.
Review the elder abuse laws from your state s penal code. Many state statutes define elder abuse as involving crime victims over a certain age or vulnerable adults over 18 who can t care for themselves. Note the difference between felony crimes and misdemeanors, and make the connection to related identity theft statues and other financial crimes.
Imagine if the victim of an elder abuse case, neglect case or con artist s scam were related to you. You wouldn t want your mom or dad, grandparents or aunts or uncles to be mistreated first by the crooks and then by the responding officers and social service agencies. Take these cases seriously, even if the dollar amount seems low. The losses usually run much deeper, both financially and, maybe even more importantly, emotionally.
Leslie Albrecht has been with the San Diego Police Department for 19 years. She has been a detective in the Elder Abuse Unit since 2000. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don t Forget to Protect Your Family
Your parents or grandparents may be approaching or at an age where you and your family are starting to have concerns about their physical and mental health. You may have seen some of the early warning signs for dementia (e.g., short-term memory loss, bad driving habits, safety problems at the house) and are worried. You may have just discovered that the black sheep of the family the unemployed nephew, the ex-doper niece, the eternally lazy long-lost son or grandson has just moved in (perhaps with a few of his equally shifty pals), offering to take care of an elderly in-law in exchange for free rent, use of the car or to watch out and protect them as they grow older. Even a supposedly reputable caregiver company may have installed what looks like a crook to provide health care, companionship or to watch over your relative. Quite quickly, cash, jewelry and other pawnable items go missing.
Other scenarios to watch out for: You may hear about a nice new friend in your relatives lives who arrived out of the blue and wants to help them, with lots of financial or legal advice. If you have a single or recently widowed relative, you may meet a much younger new love interest, who, even with a 40-year age gap, professes eternal love for your relative. This person claims to want nothing in return and may tempt your family member with offers of companionship or even sex, which is how they are often asked or persuaded to move into the house.
You may hear about teams of home repair specialists roaming through senior neighborhoods, offering to do yard work, driveway resurfacing or cheap auto body or paint repair. These people have a talent for getting inside and finding an envelope of cash in a drawer or on the kitchen table next to the sugar bowl.
Trust your instincts as a cop. If it seems like too much of a coincidence that one or more of these types of people are now a part of your relatives lives, then it is. If your relatives seem distant, less likely to make their usual frequent contact with you or secretive about how they re spending their money or who is living with them, you should be very concerned.
The time to have these discussions is before any of these scenarios take root. You and your other family members (of the non black sheep variety) should discuss these issues and set up a plan to include the following:
If the behaviors of these new arrivals (let s just call them suspects to make it easier) has set off your alarm bells, do what you would do in the field: Go to the house and question them, outside the view and hearing of your elderly relatives.
Don t forget that these scammers have been doing some full-scale brainwashing (e.g., Don t tell your grandson about this or This issue is best kept between us, because if they find out what you ve done, your family will take away your car, sell your home and put you in one of those terrible rest homes. ).
It may not be easy or even legal to kick these people out of your relative s home. Many of these crooks know that if they have paid any rent at all, they have tenants rights in many states, which means it may require hiring an attorney to file an unlawful detainer or three-day or 30-day notice to evict.
If you can t confront these people, keep your emotions out of the confrontation and be professional; you don t want to put your career at risk by losing control. If your relative lives in a neighboring jurisdiction, it may be best to call that law enforcement agency to investigate. Don t wait until the damage is done.