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Published:September 16th, 2006 07:08 EST
Elder Abuse Hits Close to Home

Elder Abuse Hits Close to Home

By Meghan Gargan

In March of this year over $20,000 went missing from in Evelyn Flanagan`s bank account. While this sum may seem an unusually large spending amount in a single month for an 86-year old woman, what is most peculiar is Flanagan died Jan. 30, 2006 " 3 months prior to the money going missing.

The unaccounted checks were reported by Flanagan`s niece Anne Roosevelt to Detective Kenneth Mui and Agent Brian Durrand of the Cambridge Police Department. Roosevelt explained she had stopped by her aunt`s house to pick up the mail and noticed Flanagan`s Citizen Bank statement having several large sums being withdrawn after her aunt`s death, according to the police report. Roosevelt pointed the finger at Flanagan`s in-home healthcare aide, Sharon Spaulding, indicating elderly exploitation and fraud.

When interviewing Spaulding, 49, she confessed to Mui and Durrand that she had stolen money from Flanagan and began forging the elder woman`s signature after her death. Spaulding blamed the entire thing on being a heroin addict at the time. In her written statement Spaulding said, I`m sorry everyday for what I`ve done. I`m not that person now "I`ve lost my family over this. " She gave the names of at least four other people who assisted in the scheme by cashing the checks and bringing her the drugs. Spaulding was arrested and charged with forgery and larceny over and under $250 from a person over 60-years old and disabled, according to court documents.

Unfortunately, this kind of situation is not unusual for Detective Mui. I see this quite a bit -- cases that have to do with elderly and fraud and it`s such a sensitive subject. It`s scary because we all have elderly family and we hire people to take care of them. The defendant was trusted by this family to do every day simple tasks for Mrs. Flanagan and it`s really a breech of trust. "

The elderly demographic is a prime target for this kind of financial exploitation because they are commonly isolated or have physical or psychological problems that make them unable to cry out for help. Only 1 out of 25 elderly abuse cases involving financial fraud is reported, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse, yet there is estimated to be between 1 to 2 million of these cases each year. Spaulding is not the first, nor will she be the last, to embezzle and scheme helpless senior citizens out of their hard earned money. If nothing else, Spaulding is following the worn down path of the growing number of corrupt homecare aides.

As recently as last year the McDaniels, a husband and wife duo, were brought up on charges after embezzling more than $100,000 from an elderly couple located in Florida. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the McDaniels took legal responsibility for the elder woman in 1999, at the age of 81, after her husband died. It was also reported that the McDaniels requested a new draft of the will drawn up and signed by the elder woman giving the couple virtually everything.

Another case involving at-home healthcare was in 2003, a then 22-year old Rosetta Wilder embezzled numerous checks from an 86-year old woman while acting as her substitute caregiver, according to the Broward Sheriff Office in Florida. Wilder`s boyfriend would help cash the checks at a local bank using fake identification.

  I think [these cases] happen mostly because of greed, " said Mui. The elderly are so vulnerable because they are well established, living off pensions or retirement because they`ve worked hard in their careers. Then a health problem arises and they need help and they have to trust these individuals with their life. "

In 2001 it was Kelly Sue Hein`s greed that spent over $37,000 using an elderly woman`s checking account, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. The newspaper quoted the Carson City district attorney staff saying that Hein used the money for her own pleasure. " Additionally, Hein, while acting as the elder woman`s caregiver, rack up another $20,000 in credit card debt.  She later was charged with murder and elderly exploitation for the death of her 79-year old charge, Iris Barton.

Many families have opted for in-home healthcare to allow their loved ones to remain in comfortable and familiar surroundings, but that doesn`t mean they should let their guard down.

Rachel Rose, a social worker for the Protective Services for Elders in Cambridge, suggests that if in-home healthcare is an option, families should go through a public agency that protects the elder person`s best interests. I recommend going through an agency like [protective services] because we only work with agencies we trust and any kind of inappropriate behavior can be easily traced. We work with reputable agencies to help set up in-home healthcare and we help coordinate those services. "

Scott Fagan, a case manager at Family Friends Homecare, an in-home healthcare agency in Needham Mass., has a realistic viewpoint of the rising scandal with at-home help. We try our best to not let these [sort of cases] happen, but there are always going to be a few who slip through the cracks. " Fagan says Family Friends employees go through a criminal background check and must provide three references from prior healthcare fields. We follow up closely with our clients and our employees. " Fagan did admit that the agency has had to deal with embezzlement by employees in the past, It happened once I think in six years. That`s not too bad. "

While not too bad " may be Fagan`s take on the matter, he disregards the numerous unreported cases and the elder victims who are silently suffering. State lawmakers are not making the same mistake. Several states such as California, South Carolina, Missouri, Michigan and Vermont are putting into place elder-friendly legislation and providing more resources for seniors and their families. Michigan has created a Senior Exploitation and Abuse Quick Response Team since the number of elder abuse cases had doubled in the state in 2002 from 1992, according to Michigan`s Adult Protective Services.

Perhaps agencies will put in tougher screen tests and become more selective in who to hire once a larger study of elder abuse is conducted. At the moment there have only been small studies completed, but Sara Aravanis, director of The National Center for Elder Abuse, remains alert to the issue. These reports [of elderly abuse] increase every year, but the numbers we get are only a small portion, the tip of the ice berg, for what is really going on. Once we have a larger study I think you`ll see more being done. " Aravanis suggests until then to always keep one eye open, Families have to be alert when giving over the care of a family member. Remember to look after your own, even though their daily activities are in someone else`s care. "

These words are comforting to Mui, who is still a part of the on-going case against Spaulding. You look at this [incident] and it`s kind of like being in the movies. You know this is an issue, but you don`t realize how much it actually happens until it happens to you. It can really happen to anybody and it`s scary. "

Written for J2 at Northeastern University August 10, 2006.