Older, Wiser and At Risk: How to Protect Against Elder Abuse

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When we think about retirement and our golden years, we often picture a happy existence. My great-grandmother’s picture of retirement completely changed in 1991 when, at the age of 80, she became the full-time guardian of a newborn baby. My gran gave me a home of constant love, support and kindness. To a young child, a parental figure can seem invulnerable; children do not know the frailty of life.

I learned about the frailty of life on October 2, 2009. My gran had a series of strokes that left her unable to talk, unable to walk on her own and unable to care for herself. It was—to put it bluntly—the worst day of my life. After some time in the hospital, I brought my gran home to our new reality. I became a full-time caregiver—keeping my gran company and trying anything to help her get better.

It was also during this time that I learned hard lessons about finances. My gran and I were never well off. Social Security was not designed to help raise a small child and my gran was not financially prepared for her incapacitation. As a teenager, I had no idea how to navigate banking, insurance and healthcare. I had a scholarship that covered my meals and other incidentals, but no way to provide for my gran or idea how to handle her finances. With bills piling up, I took on a full-time job as a janitor to pay for her food, medicine and insurance premiums.

After three years, my gran passed away peacefully in her home. To this day, I still remember all of the wonderful memories we made together. I also remember the sheer terror of being a full-time caregiver living below the poverty line.

Elder financial abuse is an issue of immense concern in the Bank Secrecy Act/anti-money laundering (BSA/AML) community. New analytics are being created to spot this crime proactively and many conferences offer learning opportunities on the subject. Often BSA/AML professionals feel that our work goes into a void even as we identify suspicious activity, but never seem to resolve potential crimes. I believe that elder abuse must have a resolution. To this end, I am an advocate for local multidisciplinary teams (MDTs).

In 2019, the Augusta County MDT was formed to address the systemic issue of elder abuse in the area. This district, while not heavily populated, sees more reports of elder abuse than any other part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.1 This MDT brings together social workers, law enforcement, medical professionals, attorneys and one financial institution (FI) as a team to work through cases. Upon signing a memorandum of understanding, participants can begin to attend meetings, receive case files and make referrals to the MDT.

The importance of MDTs is apparent when looking deeply at the nature of elder abuse. Financial abuse can often comingle with other types of abuse such as neglect, physical trauma and emotional trauma.2 The full needs of a victim of elder abuse may extend beyond a simple protective order or the removal of a signer from an account. There are often deep, lasting traumas the victim must face across all aspects of his or her life.3

MDTs are a powerful tool that require cooperation and trust on all sides

MDTs allows for rapid and holistic response to a case. While the FI provides remediation for financial abuse and supporting evidence, law enforcement and attorneys can begin constructing their case against a suspect and social workers can ensure the health and safety of the victim. This process moves cases along quickly with full resolutions. MDTs can also allow for more effective information sharing by providing an outlet for direct contact. To illustrate the power of MDTs, the following is a recent case study from the Augusta County MDT.4

Case Study

In early 2020, local law enforcement received a police report for property damage. An elderly man (“Ernest”) reported that his grandson (“Timmy”) had knocked out several windowpanes in a rage. Normally, this case would be a minor charge. The suspect would, perhaps, receive an insignificant punishment or the suspect and victim might settle their dispute privately. However, the patrol officer receiving the report noticed something odd about the elderly man. He seemed afraid; he was wearing ratty, torn clothes and he said that he was not in possession of his own wallet. The patrol officer decided to refer the case to the MDT. The MDT began a full review of Ernest. Ernest was a widower with no family in the area other than his grandson, Timmy. Ernest kept one bank account and lived modestly. Upon receiving and reviewing the bank statements for Ernest’s account, the MDT noticed that Ernest did not make any of the transactions on the account. Instead of using his social security for living expenses, Ernest’s account showed that every dollar was going to liquor stores, gambling and fast food purchases.

Social workers were able to visit Ernest’s home and see that he did not have access to food, clean clothes or running water. In addition, Ernest seemed fearful and had multiple contusions on his body. The MDT immediately began working on a solution. The FI representative ensured quick delivery of bank records and provided recommendations on securing the account. The law enforcement officers and attorneys were able to build their case easily and issue more charges against Timmy beyond the initial property damage. The social workers found services to ensure Ernest had utilities, food and regular check-ins with his neighbors. What could have been a simple misdemeanor charge ended up becoming a case of financial exploitation, physical abuse and neglect. Without the power of MDTs, Ernest might still be in that situation.

Conclusion

MDTs are a powerful tool that require cooperation and trust on all sides. A clear memorandum of understanding can provide guidance for information sharing and expectations of each group member. As BSA/AML work increasingly becomes a game of artificial intelligence, modeling and rapid response shops, it is important to remember that behind each transaction is a human. It could be another person’s gran at the end of that debit card swipe or check. I believe that to solve human problems you need human intervention. MDTs provide BSA/AML professionals with the opportunity to marry in-house analytics with real world solutions. 

Stephanie Painter, CAMS-FCI, Bank Secrecy Act manager, DuPont Community Credit Union, Waynesboro, VA, USA, stpainter@mydccu.com

  1. “2019 Annual Report,” Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, https://www.vadars.org/downloads/publications/2019AnnualReport.pdf
  2. Paul Aravich, “Elder Abuse and the Aging Brain,” PowerPoint presentation, August 30, 2019.
  3. Ibid.
  4. All identifying information changed to protect victim.

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