We all will grow older. But that doesn't mean that as older people, we should become victims to elder abuse.
But according to recent statistics, all too often, that can be the case.
One in four elders are at risk for abuse, but only a tiny percentage is ever reported. One in 14 cases of elder abuse and only 1 in 25 cases of financial exploitation is ever reported.
So how can the justice community better respond to, address, and combat such tragedies?
- some of the common misconceptions that hinder elder abuse cases,
- examples of how such barriers can be avoided,
- the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to addressing elder abuse in your community.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Your webinar is specifically about overcoming the obstacles to elder abuse cases. Without giving away the whole webinar, what are some of the biggest obstacles not only to prosecuting these cases, but protecting our elderly in general?
Paul Greenwood: One of the biggest challenges is how to overcome the “wall of silence” that exists in making sure that allegations of criminal behavior against seniors gets reported and investigated. A lot of that silence comes from the victims themselves. Sometimes the silence comes from professionals who don’t want to get involved. Sometimes it comes from law enforcement who do not appreciate that what they are being told is, in fact, a crime and prefer to label it a “civil matter.”
So that’s one of the major problems that I’ve been dealing with for 21 years: “how do I, as a prosecutor, help to break down these self-installed barriers of silence.”
JCH: So do we overcome these roadblocks? How do you begin to address them?
Paul: I think it’s a constant working of getting out in the community, because I think that for prosecutors to think they can sit in their offices with their hands folded and that everybody will come to them with nice, pristine, investigated cases is a delusion.
Elder abuse is, and has been for many years, submerged. So, I need to be out in the community talking to various citizens:
mandated reporters, to law enforcement… for example this afternoon, I’m going to be talking to 50 residents of a skilled nursing facility. And sometimes, I’m out at a mobile home park talking to residents. And it’s through these kinds of interactions, that you get to hear things.
You, then, have to be part of a multi-disciplinary approach. So you have to be willing to form a team made up of key players such as law enforcement, prosecutors, adult protective service workers, other mandated reporters, medical personnel, so that everyone is aware of how each agency can contribute towards breaking down these barriers.
That takes time. It also takes the initiative – particularly on the part of the prosecutors office – to make that happen. Because I think people around the community will certainly look to the prosecutor to be the one to say, “Ok I’m ready. I’m here. We accept that elder abuse is a crime and once we can develop protocol to investigate these cases, please bring them to us.”
So that’s where I think the change in attitude begins is in the prosecutor's office.
JCH: Given how big our elderly population is, and it's growing. But it doesn’t seem like there is a lot of awareness around elder abuse. Why is that?
Paul: Well, it’s certainly better than it was when I started out 21 years ago. And I think there are several reasons for that. I do believe there are many more articles written about the crime of elder abuse. People do talk about it, now, as a crime rather than as a social issue. But, we do need to do a lot more.
I think it starts at the grass roots level with multidisciplinary teams being formed in counties all over this country. And it needs to get the attention of every single legislature in the country, in terms of, that it is a growing problem, it isn’t going away, and it’s going to get worse. Therefore, we need to provide much better resources for adult protective services, which is the first line of contact with many victims.
What I am concerned about is, if you take a study of any state in this country and ask “how many child protective service workers there are, in comparison to adult protective service workers,” I think most people would be shocked. The ratio is typically 3:1, 5:1 maybe 10:1 in favor of child protective services. So, I think we need to do a lot better job of bringing it to the attention of our legislatures to try to reverse that trend, and pour much-needed resources into adult protective services who are basically creaking under the increasing caseloads.
JCH: Why is it that we don’t readily “see” or immediately recognize situations of elder abuse?
Paul: I think part of the issue is that when we hear about a 5-year-old victim being exploited, harmed or abuse everything in us instinctively says “I want to protect that person. I want to go after that perpetrator who did this to them.
When a 95-year-old victim has been abused or exploited or taken advantage of, we don’t as instinctively react because we may try to explain it away. “Well, they weren’t really exploited because they willingly gave the money to this other person.” Or we go to the victim and ask, “what do you want to happen to this suspect who harmed you?” “Oh, I don’t want anything to happen to them.” So, the investigator closes the case.
I think one of my major challenges has been to try to rebut that. First, by saying, we need to dig deeper. There are many ways in which a person can, on the surface, appear to be handing over money voluntarily. But we need to examine the extent of that consent. Maybe they didn’t give consent because they are mentally impaired.
Secondly, we should never ask victims, “do you want us to investigate the person who did this to you?” That should be an irrelevant part of the investigation. We need to gather the facts, and whether or not the victim wants us to prosecute is immaterial. If we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, we should be prosecuting the perpetrator.
JCH: The work that you do is important, but must be challenging at times. What drew you to this specific area of justice and protecting the elderly – quite honestly, some of our most vulnerable citizens? What keeps you motivated or inspired to keep going – even in light of some of the horrible things you must encounter as part of your job?
Paul: I didn’t seek this. I was, basically ordered into the office by the bosses, and sat down, and told “Greenwood, you’re going to prosecute elder abuse cases.” This is back in November of 1995, and I had never heard that term before. Didn’t know it existed. Partly because I had been raised by two wonderful people: educators, but also tough parents who showed me tough love when it needed to be shown. The last thing in my mind would ever have been to harm either of them, or to take advantage of them. I grew up with a huge respect for my parents. So, when I was told there’s a problem called elder abuse, this was totally alien to me.
When I was given this assignment, frankly, it didn’t seem that attractive. I thought I’d do it for 2-3 years and then I’d get back into the hard core of criminal prosecutions we all dream about. But within a few months, I began to realize, “Oh, my goodness, here is an untapped area. Here is something that no prosecutor has ever delved into before. I’m going into a situation that may require some initiative, some creative thinking. Maybe this is an opportunity to make a difference.” And slowly but surely, as I started hearing shocking stories of crimes that had not been investigated or prosecuted, I began to realize this is my time. This is what I’m supposed to do.
And in most of these cases, I do identify with the victim in the sense that I have a 93-year old mother still alive, living alone. And whenever I see a story or read a crime report I think “That could have been my mother.” And that’s what drives me every single day: I hope what I can do here is to reduce the risk of another person becoming a victim, and hold as many people accountable as I can who dare to physically harm, or financially exploit an older adult.
And it certainly has challenged me in so many ways professionally. It has expanded my legal knowledge. It has put me in trial cases that I never thought I would be trying. I’ve done a death penalty case. I’ve done homicide cases. And in 21 years, I have never come to work thinking, “that’s it, I’m done. I want to move on.” Because I keep learning every single day. There are new ways in which these predators out there take advantage of seniors. And even though I get very frustrated, I never get discouraged.
JCH: A large number of our readers and subscribers are in law enforcement, but we have representation from all parts of the justice arena. Can you share some specifics of what different types of justice professionals or first responders will gain by attending your webinar? What skills or new knowledge will they gain that they can immediately use the next day on the job?
Paul: Curiously enough, my first response to that is I hope I can reach the audience on a very personal level. That they will think about their own family member who is older, who lives alone, who may right now be potentially at risk of becoming the next victim of some form of elder abuse.
Whenever I go out to trainings, that’s how I pitch it, this could be your mum, this could be your grandfather, this could be your great-aunt who could be the next victim.
On a broader level, I hope I can deliver a message that people will accept that, in order for us to have an impact in any community, we have to recognize that it takes a multi-disciplinary approach. That everybody — from parole agent to a judge who is looking at landlord tenant evictions, to a police officer who responds to a call of an elderly woman laying in a home on the floor, to an adult protective service worker, I hope people will understand that we cannot approach this issue in isolated silos.
We have to get together as a community of professionals, sit down around a table over lunch and chat and talk about what kind of elder abuse issues are there in the community. Talk to the adult protective services. Because they’re the people who see it most. And have them [discuss] “do you believe that we are responding adequately to the reports you are hearing?” Is law enforcement following up? Is the local prosecutor able to convert these reports into real prosecutions? If not, where are we failing? What can we do to make a difference and to put it right?”
We tackled this debate 40 years ago, when the first homicide reports of domestic violence victims started coming out where we realized that domestic violence victims were being murdered after initial reports 6-12 months previously there had been an altercation in the house, but we had reviewed it as a private matter within the family, and we left them alone.
We learned that’s not the approach to take with domestic violence. So, we need to adopt the same approach with elder abuse in 2017.
So that’s what I hope people will take away from the presentation: that elder abuse exists in our community on various levels. It’s primarily hidden. Victims are too embarrassed, or too unwilling, to come forward. That we have to be more proactive. That it could actually be happening to one of my own relatives. That we can only solve the problem through a multi-disciplinary approach. And to recognize that, even though we may not have all the resources at our fingertips, we must never allow a lack of resources to be the excuse as to why we should do nothing about this problem.
JCH: You've dealt with a lot of victims of elder abuse and have learned a lot about how to best work with these unique victims. What guidance or tips might you have for when a law enforcement officer or official is engaging or interacting with a victim – and even the family — of elder abuse?
Paul: I would suggest that we do not try to prejudge a person’s credibility or ability to recall events based on simply first impressions of age or appearance. And we should never assume or use terms like “she is senile” or “he is confused.”
We should ask appropriate questions. We should try to extract as much information as possible. But I’m also saying to law enforcement, please, particularly when there is an allegation of financial impropriety, please do not simply say “this is a civil matter” because the only appropriate person who can make that call is somebody who is legally qualified and who has spent years legally evaluating what is a crime and what is not a crime.
So my pitch to law enforcement is, gather the facts, and submit those facts to your local prosecutor and ask your local prosecutor, “in your opinion is this potentially a crime, or is this only a civil matter?”
Secondly, I would urge every police officer, never ask the victim, “Do you wish to press charges?” To me, that is not appropriate. We do not ask that of young victims. We don’t ask people who are dead, “do you want me to prosecute the person who murdered you?” We should never ask an elderly person, “do you want me to investigate and prosecute your son who just hit you in the face, and caused you to get a black eye?” But too many times, police officers are falling into that trap.
Click here to watch How to Overcome Barriers to Successful Investigation and Prosecution of Elder Abuse Cases