Seniors are vulnerable to financial elder abuse and are often victimized, but there’s a scarcity of government resources in Sacramento County and elsewhere in California to address the problem.
On May 21, 2019, the Sacramento County Bar Association’s Probate and Estate Planning Law Section presented a program entitled “Helping the Helpless: How You Can Help Adult Protective Services and District Attorney Protect Vulnerable Sacramentans.” The speakers were Debra Larson and Irene Chu, managers with Sacramento County Adult Protective Services, and Frederick Gotha, Deputy District Attorney who heads the Sacramento DA’s Elder Abuse Unit.
Their presentations indicated that our community would benefit if local authorities had greater staffing to combat the rising tide of financial elder abuse.
Sacramento County, for example, has a population of over 1.5 million, with approximately 14 percent age 65 and up. That percentage is increasing rapidly as the Baby Boomers enter their 70s.
Adult Protective Services in Sacramento has 60 staff members, including 42 social workers. While staffing has increased 50% since Fiscal Year 2013-2014, there are relatively few personnel to cover the county’s growing senior demographic and the various risks they face. There are about 5,000 Sacramento seniors for every one APS social worker.
Two units within Sacramento APS focus on financial abuse. According to Larson, of the 11,548 calls to APS in fiscal year 2017-2018, about 22 percent involved alleged financial abuse, the largest growing category of reported problem. The Sacramento Bee reported on the surge in financial elder abuse reports in June 2016.
To be sure, striking the right balance between respecting the autonomy of seniors and protecting them from financial predators is no easy task.
APS is a voluntary program that works best when seniors welcome help. Unlike Child Protective Services, APS workers cannot remove seniors from their homes. An elder generally may refuse or withdraw consent at any time to preventative or remedial services. Hence, even when an APS staff member is concerned that a senior may be the victim of a “sweetheart scam,” the agency will not intervene if the senior seems to have sufficient mental capacity to make his or her own decisions.
In extreme circumstances, and in the absence of family or friends who can initiate a conservatorship, APS may make a referral of a mentally incapacitated senior to the Public Guardian’s office for evaluation of a potential conservatorship.
The Sacramento County District Attorney prosecutes suspects in physical elder abuse cases but seldom takes up cases of financial elder abuse. The Elder Abuse Unit is staffed by one attorney and one victim advocate. Filed criminal cases have increased from 81 in Fiscal Year 2013-2014 to 184 in Fiscal Year 2018-2019.
Gotha observed that financial elder abuse cases are challenging to prosecute given the high burden of proof, the mental and physical health of victims, and the complexities of victim/suspect interactions. The physical elder abuse cases leave relatively little time to evaluate and prosecute financial elder abuse reports.
Those concerned about financial elder abuse can and should report their concerns to Adult Protective Services (at 916-874-9377 in Sacramento County) and local law enforcement, but even in cases that seem clear cut the District Attorney may decline to prosecute.
Elders and their advocates also should consider private enforcement remedies, including filing a financial elder abuse claim under Welfare and Institutions Code sections 15600 to 15675 in the Superior Court. Indeed, the Legislature over the years has broadened California’s Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act so as to facilitate enforcement.