Pennsylvania Dept. of Aging creates new unit to investigate elder financial abuse

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An elderly man is silhouetted by the setting sun as he walks in Bucharest, Romania, Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

WESA – The Pennsylvania Department of Aging is shining a light on elder financial abuse, in hopes of getting more convictions.

The department’s new financial abuse specialist team will consist of an attorney, two financial analysts, and a retired state trooper with experience in financial exploitation investigations. The unit is funded for two years through a $666,000 federal grant.

Due to Pennsylvania’s aging population, experts believe elder financial abuse is a growing problem. A report from the state’s Department of Aging estimates that older Pennsylvanians lost a combined total of $58 million during the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Despite its prevalence, financial exploitation is one of the most difficult types of elder abuse to investigate. The crimes are complex. Perpetrators, oftentimes a family member or caregiver, tend to have close relationships with victims. And due to privacy and liability concerns, financial institutions may be wary of cooperating with social services.

The Department of Aging Protective Services Bureau Director Denise Getgen says many of the state’s local agencies, especially those in rural communities, lack the resources and expertise to investigate such cases. With the newly created special unit, she hopes some of that will change.

“We have these experts who have done this kind of work their entire career who don’t have the caseload that may be other staff that are doing lots of elder abuse investigations,” said Getgen.

Getgen notes the professional backgrounds of staffers at the commonwealth’s 52 Area Agencies on Aging tend to be in disciplines such as nursing or psychology. The financial abuse specialist team will bring skill sets in law and finance to abuse investigations .

Officials say they hope additional state resources will reap more convictions at the local level and, in some instances, recoup the victim’s assets.

The emphasis toward seeking criminal charges is welcome news to Pennsylvania AARP’s director of state advocacy Teresa Osobone. “Generally, we see financial elder abuse treated only as a civil matter, which means there is no jail time or criminal record for the abuser. The penalty may be just returning the stolen assets or money.”

Osborne, who served as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Aging from 2015-19, notes that often victims are reluctant to come forward due to feelings of shame.

But officials say if money can be recovered–or if abuse can be prevented in the first place– greater enforcement won’t just benefit older Pennsylvanians. Taxpayer dollars are sometimes the only monetary support people have after incurring losses from financial abuse.

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