A Personal Story of Elder Abuse and Advocacy: An Interview with Philip Marshall

Brooke Astor

It's easy to believe that elder abuse can only happen to certain populations of society. But the reality is that elder abuse doesn't discriminate; no elder is immune. Societal position, wealth, fame… none of these can protect elders. Only caring, honest friends and family willing to take a stand to protect their loved one… even when that stand can become painfully uncomfortable.

 Philip Marshall of the Beyond Brooke campaign knows that discomfort all too well. 

Join us Thursday, January 18, as Philip discusses:

  • Needs of those who are in elders’ circles of support, if they are concerned about alleged or actual abuse
  • Power of Attorney (abuse)
  • Guardianship (reform) and supported decision making
  • Capacity screening
  • Undue influence
  • Poly-victimization, with a focus on how other forms of abuse are used to achieve financial exploitation 
  • Elder financial exploitation, and how it can be detected, arrested, and used to stop other forms of abuse, too
 
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): For those of our audience who may not be familiar with Brooke Astor’s story, could you share a bit about her case and how you are connected? 

Philip Marshall: My grandmother was born Roberta Brooke Russell, in 1902. Her father was a Marine who ended his career as Commandant of the Marine Corps. In her childhood, they lived abroad a lot, including Beijing where she met the Last Emperor. In 1953, my grandmother – once divorced (from my grandfather), once widowed – became “Brooke Astor” when she married Vincent Astor, the last American Astor whose family traced its roots to John Jacob Astor, the first multi-millionaire in the United States.

After his father died on Titanic, Vincent left Harvard to take over the family fortune – and, in the process, remake the Astor image from that of a New York City slum landlord to a leading philanthropist. In 1947 he established the Vincent Astor Foundation, “for the alleviation of human suffering.” After Vincent died in 1959, my grandmother became president of the foundation to advance the “quality of life” by practicing engage philanthropy decades before the practice was mainstream.

Well into her 90s, she was center stage as a “humanist aristocrat with a generous heart,” and the “grande dame” of philanthropic and social life in New York City, where had a large public presence. But she had a small family. Her blood relatives totaled one son, two twin grandsons, and three grandchildren.

In 1960, my family moved to New York when I was seven. My parents divorced the next year. My father remarried shortly after. Later, my mother remarried and we moved away from New York, when I was nine, to end up in Vermont in the late 60s. Vermont is two hundred miles, but a world away, from New York — a world where Brooke Astor, and my connection to her, were largely unknown until 2006, when I acted to save my grandmother from abuse by her son, my father.

 

JCH: That had to be so emotionally challenging – horrifying really – to learn about what was happening to your grandmother… Which must make it easy for you to understand how other families must feel when they discover their parent/grandparent/loved one has become the victim of elder abuse.  What sustained you during this time to keep working on behalf of your grandmother? 

Philip: When it comes to elder justice, my journey really began in 2002, the year my stepfather died. After a decade of poor health, my stepfather’s condition worsened. My family shuttled from hospital to home, and were transported from hope, to despair and – eventually – to grace.

The last, great life lessons he taught me were (1) how incredibly difficult, yet vital and enriching, it is to care for loved ones at the end of their days, and (2), how important it is to understand our loved ones’ personal wishes and proactively help realize them (in part, through estate planning).

My step-father, an Oxford law graduate, had total recall – in a good year. But he had done horribly confusing estate planning. So, in lieu of closure, my year following his death was spent on a crash course in damage control, including legal aspects of estate planning and settlement that we all new to me. I learned a lot.

~~~~~

73 million adult Americans have had personal knowledge of a victim of elder mistreatment.

Further, approximately 44 million adult Americans have become involved

in helping an elder abuse victim.

And for over 32 million adult Americans, just knowing about an elder abuse situation is generally highly stressful.

data: Breckman, et al

~~~~~

 

Guided by this experience, I turned to New York with concern for my grandmother, as I felt my father was compromising his mother’s circumstances, convincing her she was going broke, and coercing her to change her will when it was far too late, as she was in the throes of Alzheimer’s. I began speaking with my grandmother’s supportive staff and caregivers.

Brooke AstorWhen bad things happen, good people get together. In helping my fragile, abused grandmother, I was not alone. Her abuse galvanized a collective response by family, friends, staff, and caregivers all united by compassion and a common cause – individuals-in-sum with a great mixed skill-set. I remain forever grateful to them. The strength of our diversity contributed much to our success in saving my grandmother. I later learned my grandmother’s circle of support was an informal multi-disciplinary team. Yet there was nothing “informal” about the stress we endured. Staff and caregivers could have walked away any day – but, with affirmation through action, they stood firm and protected my grandmother. Yet, some saviors endured trauma, too.

Despite an almost total lack of support or resources, family, friends, and neighbors nationwide step up to help seniors who have experienced actual or alleged abuse. Yet helping hurts, as confirmed by new findings, which when extended to the general population, show that approximately 73 million adult Americans have had personal knowledge of a victim of elder mistreatment. Further, approximately 44 million adult Americans have become involved in helping an elder abuse victim. And for over 32 million adult Americans, just knowing about an elder abuse situation is generally highly stressful. Providing help to the victim tends to intensify this personal distress. (Breckman, et al, 2017) In helping seniors who are victim to abuse, we need to help their circle of support, too.

My father had his mother’s Power of Attorney, which he was using as a weapon and a shield. But, with the help of my grandmother’s friends, staff, and caretakers I was able to petition for her guardianship, which was granted. We saved my grandmother. But we did not realize elder justice – yet.

 

~~~~~

I realized: If my grandmother, Brooke Astor, can be victimized,

elder abuse does not discriminate;

any senior is vulnerable.

~~~~~

 

JCH: How have you have channeled this learning/energy into helping the broader community?

Philip: As my grandmother now rests in peace, I could have resumed my life as before. For years, my battle for my grandmother and my battle against my father consumed my life – and consumed our family. In 2009, after a six-month criminal trial and conviction of my father, a friend said, “You must be glad that’s all behind you.” But, I realize: When elder abuse hits home, it hurts.

I realize: While my grandmother was emotionally and financially abused and isolated, her case is far from isolated. Today, there are millions of elder-abuse victims suffering similar injury.

I realize: The aftermath of elder abuse far exceeds any dollar amount. Most costs are irretrievable; some, compounded.

I realize: If my grandmother, Brooke Astor, can be victimized, elder abuse does not discriminate; any senior is vulnerable.

And I realize: To be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse.

Our silence protects perpetrators, not their victims. Today, victims of elder abuse may be strangers. Tomorrow, they may be our loved ones or, perhaps, in the future, ourselves. Seniors and society deserve more.

This is why I am joining other victims, advocates, and elder-justice practitioners nationwide to advance the cause.

Yet, saving seniors is damage control after the fact. We must prevent abuse, more. Our greatest resources and our first line of offense are our communities, coupled with existing programs and services that can protect seniors at risk. Senior services and programs cultivate trust, relationships, and awareness among elders, their circles of support, and professionals. Should abuse occur, services and programs empower individuals to come forward and act by achieving an articulation between our personal responsibility and our community-wide ‘response ability’ – or ability to respond – to hold perpetrators accountable while helping make victims whole, again. 

At first, I did not recognize the full meaning of “elder justice.”

When my petition for guardianship was granted, I did not realize elder justice: I helped my grandmother and those trying to helping her. I only realized elder justice when I, and many others, brought my grandmother’s perpetrators – my father, included – to justice.

In so doing, I better understand Reverend King’s claim that, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice” – here, elder justice.

 

~~~~~

“Justice not only requires a fair and appropriate response to people who commit crimes;

it also requires helping victims of crime rebuild their lives”

 

Susan Herman, deputy commissioner, Collaborative Policing, New York Police Department (developed as part of her Parallel Justice work, while at the National Center for Victims of Crime)

~~~~~

 

JCH: Like many people, you learned about elder abuse because you had to in order to protect someone you love. What has surprised you about how the justice system handles elder abuse cases? What could we do better?

Philip: All Americans need to know that elder abuse is criminal.

In filing a guardianship petition for my grandmother, it was my hope was that this family affair would be quietly settled. Yet, for my victimized grandmother, and millions of seniors, elder abuse is not a “family affair” nor a “civil” matter. It is a crime and needs to be treated as such so victims and their supporters are not re-victimized. If I could do it over again, I would have called the Manhattan DA immediately. 

Brooke Astor and Philip MarshallA criminal investigation of one of my grandmother’s lawyers and my father was launched by the Manhattan District Attorney when a possible forgery was referred to his Elder Abuse Unit by my grandmother’s court-appointed lawyer, Susan Robbins. I remain grateful to Liz Loewy – at the time, chief of the Elder Abuse Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (Liz is now General Counsel, Senior Vice President of Industry Relations at Eversafe). As we entered the criminal justice system, Liz coupled compassion with Kleenex, helping us to find our voice and tell our story – allowing us to advance from taking a stand, and helping my grandmother, to taking the stand, in criminal court.

In 2009, after a six-month criminal trial, the jury found my father guilty on 13 of 14 counts against him. All, but one, were held up on appeal. This was a very bittersweet harvest. Yet, this harvest has so nourished the cause of elder justice. Later, in probate, charities in New York City were awarded tens of millions of dollars that my father had tried to direct to himself.

In February 2015, I testified before the Special Committee on Aging, United States Senate at a hearing titled “Broken Trust: Combating Financial Exploitation of Vulnerable Seniors.” I noted that while my grandmother lived in a jurisdiction with an elected DA, who cared, and who had an elder-abuse unit, most people don’t. Other communities need to have law enforcement officials and prosecutors who are trained in elder abuse and will respond to and pursue these cases.

Progress is being made. For example, in early November in New Orleans, prosecutors from across the country participated in the National Institute on the Prosecution of Elder Abuse (NIPEA), developed by the National Clearinghouse Against Abuse in Later Life and co-sponsored by the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women (who provided funding) and AEquitas – The Prosecutors' Resource on Violence Against Women. The NIPEA seeks to improve the ability of prosecutors, as leaders in the criminal justice community, to effectively respond to these challenging cases. Over the course of several days, prosecutors examined the value of a coordinated, victim-centered community response; learned to understand and explain evidence of injury or cognitive impairment; explored ethical issues that may arise; considered the importance of culturally-specific victim services; and contemplated ways to redefine successful case outcomes in terms of the impact on victims and their communities rather than merely obtaining a conviction. This kind of training promises to improve the quality of elder justice in the communities these prosecutors serve.

 

~~~~~

All Americans need to know that elder abuse is criminal.

 

~~~~~

 

JCH: Tell us a bit about your organization, Beyond Brooke. 

Philip: Beyond Brooke is my personal campaign to advance elder justice by achieving advocacy to foster greater awareness of abuse; personal action by seniors and their circle of support; coordinated, rapid response; and justice.

Justice includes “parallel justice,” as described by Susan Herman, when she was executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime (Susan is now deputy commissioner, Collaborative Policing, New York Police Department). In Susan’s words, “Justice not only requires a fair and appropriate response to people who commit crimes; it also requires helping victims of crime rebuild their lives” – and, when possible, advocate. 

Yet, unlike other social justice causes, primary victims of elder abuse are less able to advocate. Cognitive impairment, physical limitations, and other factors that might have predisposed elders to abuse are compounded by their victimization – and how they cope with the justice process, which may be too long for many elders. Elder abuse victims have a three-fold risk of death compared to their non-abused counterparts. (XinQi Dong, et al, 2009) In 2011, at the Elder Financial Protection Network annual conference, I shared the stage with actor Mickey Rooney who had just testified before the Special Committee on Aging, United States Senate at a hearing on “Justice for All: Ending Elder Abuse, Neglect and Financial Exploitation.” At our conference, Mr. Rooney was so traumatized he could only share his story after much-shared support.

I am focusing on elder financial exploitation, in recognition that (1) one in five seniors are victim to elder financial exploitation, the most prevalent form of abuse; (2) it can be the most detectable form of abuse; (3) its discovery can help “arrest” other forms; and (3) rapid, coordinated response is critical.

When I was desperately trying to help my grandmother, I sought advice from several trusted people including a sage high-school friend whose own family had been through similar circumstances. He advised, “Philip, follow your heart first; then, follow the money.” Our greatest concern was my grandmother’s psychological abuse, one of the most difficult forms of elder abuse to give credence to – much less document and assess. So, in large part, the fallback was the financials.

I now know that financials are at the forefront of our campaign for elder justice. The financial industry, regulators, and nonprofits are playing a key, leadership role. As noted by Karl Pillemer and colleagues, “…elder abuse is likely the most widespread problem of older people that is largely preventable (unlike many disease conditions of old age).” (2016) In addition to detection and rapid response, prevention is possible.

The financial industry can help seniors face to face and in the digital space. Elder justice is in its infancy; so are big-data analytics. Continued development in big-data can harness streaming analytics for detection and rapid response; warehoused analytics can be sandboxed toward proactive prevention of exploitation.

However, there needs to be greater articulation between all of us who report abuse (as individuals or professionals) with those who respond – law enforcement and adult protective services at the forefront and those who administer justice.

 

~~~~~

“…[E]lder abuse is likely the most widespread problem of older people

that is largely preventable (unlike many disease conditions of old age).”

 

Karl Pillemer, et al

~~~~~

 

JCH: Without giving the presentation away, what do you hope attendees will learn by coming to your webinar that can help them in their roles in the justice system?

Philip: Elder justice is in its infancy compared to other movements that define our social, legal, and moral obligations: justice for victims of sexual assault and survivors of domestic violence, for example.

But advances are being achieved through awareness, research, practice, and policy. Today, elder justice can help complete, not compete with, other causes. Social justice is not about just one cause or just another. Elder justice is not only about seniors, today, but our future selves.

In the case of my grandmother, elder justice was realized. That is rare. Most of the millions of elder abuse victims, their suffering shrouded in silence, do not receive justice. Only one in 24 elder abuse cases are reported to authorities (Under the Radar: New York State elder abuse prevalence study, 2011.

Sadly, my grandmother endured poly-victimization and re-victimization, with multiple forms of abuse strategically delivered, time and again, by her son. Transgressions were fueled by my father’s mistaken belief that, irrespective of his mother’s needs and wishes, he deserved and could take whatever she had. This included her money – and her wellbeing.

As a result, my grandmother’s case allows us to examine many facets of elder abuse – informed by recent research, practice, legislation, and other efforts that advance elder justice. Subjects covered in the webinar will include:

  • Needs of those who are in elders’ circles of support, if they are concerned about alleged or actual abuse
  • Power of Attorney (abuse)
  • Capacity screening as it informs assessment of cognitive abilities and testamentary capacity
  • Guardianship (reform) and supported decision making
  • Undue influence, and new legal developments
  • Poly-victimization, with a focus on how other forms of abuse are used to achieve financial exploitation
  • Elder financial exploitation, and how it can be detected, arrested, and used to stop other forms of abuse, too

While elder abuse is a trend, it’s not our destiny. I look forward to exploring ways that our justice system can hold abusers accountable, help make victims whole, and spur all of us to know that our community (justice system, included) has our back when we choose to act and report abuse.

 

Click here to register for "The Brooke Astor Story: Hard Learned Lessons that Address Elder Abuse and Financial Exploitation."

 

 

 

Additional Resources
7 months ago
Understanding Elder Abuse: An Interview with Julie Schoen
Experts say that as many as 5 million elderly people are abused on an annual basis.  Even mo […]
National Center on Elder Abuse
10 months ago
Prosecuting Vulnerable and Elder Adult Abuse: An Interview with Hilary Weinberg and Jim Seeger
  With better health care, diet and exercise, most Americans are living longer: on a […]
Join the Justice Clearinghouse Community of over 23,309 Justice Practitioners!

Join the Justice Clearinghouse Community of over 23,309 Justice Practitioners!

3-5 times per week we will send you updates on free upcoming webinars, custom created infographics and interviews with our presenters

You have Successfully Subscribed!

X