The case headed for a Southeast Missouri courtroom today involves a public official, and that makes it unusual. The nature of the case, however, has become increasingly typical.
The coroner of Perry County stands accused of theft and financial exploitation of the elderly. The allegation involves a woman in her 90s and at least $80,000 taken from her bank account.
Missouri’s legislature has acted in recent years to strengthen state laws against those taking financial advantage of older citizens. And Congress turned its attention to the problem with a hearing this week.
Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which heard testimony on Wednesday about financial exploitation of the elderly. She said later that an upsurge in the crime seemed likely.
“We do believe, because of the baby boomer generation, that there is going to be not a diminishment of this but, in fact, an increase,” she said in a conference call with reporters.
Demographic trends point to an aging population. In Missouri, according to the state’s Office of Administration, residents 65 and older made up 13 percent of the population in 2000. This will rise to an estimated 21 percent by 2030, with roughly 176,000 people in the 85-and-older category in that year.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, explored prosecutorial efforts in various parts of the country and the work of various entities — financial institutions, among others — to detect the crimes.
(In the Perry County case, a billing manager at the woman’s nursing home saw as red flags a number of checks being written for cash in excessive amounts.)
Senators also heard testimony from Philip Marshal, the grandson of writer and philanthropist Brooke Astor. Mr. Marshal recounted how he helped bring to justice his father, Anthony Marshal, who was convicted in 2009 of defrauding Ms. Astor of millions of dollars as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
Ms. McCaskill noted that personal connections between victims and perpetrators often hinder efforts to investigate and prosecute the crimes.
“One of the challenges we have here is a massive under-reporting, particularly when the financial abuse is coming from a member of the person’s family,” the senator said. “Many times there is a diminished capacity that makes it almost impossible for the elderly to speak up.”
Page Ulrey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney from Seattle, Wash., handles elder abuse cases for her office and testified at the hearing.
“Because victims of elder financial exploitation are so often isolated, their victimization often goes on for months and sometimes years before it is discovered,” she said in her testimony.
Lawmakers in Jefferson City passed legislation in 2012 and 2013 beefing up statutes that protect seniors from financial abuse. Gov. Jay Nixon, when signing the 2012 law, said prosecutors had previously been hamstrung by the perpetrators’ status as guardian or their power of attorney.
“The changes I’m signing into law make it clear that regardless of who you are or what power you have over a person, financial exploitation of older Missourians is wrong,” he said. “It is illegal, and the state will use the full force of the law to go after those who exploit vulnerable Missourians.”
The state’s Department of Health and Senior Services oversees the program MOSAFE, which stands for Missourians Stopping Adult Financial Exploitation. It helps train financial institutions and other groups and individuals about how to recognize the crime.
Anyone suspecting the crime can call the Missouri Adult Abuse and Neglect Hotline, (800) 392-0210.