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Ending Elder Abuse

Prosecutor Paul Greenwood is on a mission to protect older Americans from swindlers

Fifteen years ago, the bosses at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office told Paul Greenwood that he would begin prosecuting elder abuse cases.

“What is elder abuse?” he recalls asking. “And they all looked at me and said, ‘Well, we don’t know much about it either, but we want you to go find it and go prosecute it.’ ”

Prosecute he did. To date, Greenwood and his colleagues have prosecuted more than 350 felony cases. The San Diego office is among only a handful of official elder abuse units in the country, and Greenwood has made it one of the most aggressive and respected foes of the crime.

In his free time, Greenwood travels the country educating the public on how to protect against abuse. He also teaches those on the frontlines how to better enforce laws and prosecute offenders.

Creating a new division about a little-known crime was a tall order for the native Brit. But Greenwood knew something about career challenges. He spent the first 12 years of his legal career as a barrister in England, defending and prosecuting criminal cases. Then in 1991, with his wife homesick for her native San Diego, Greenwood moved to the States.

The transition from British barrister to American litigator was “a nightmare for me,” Greenwood, 57, says. “I didn’t know what a written constitution was. I didn’t know what the Fifth or the Sixth Amendment was. I went to this crash course: How to Pass the California Bar in Seven Weeks. I devoted 17 hours a day to studying, and it paid off.”

That determination now fuels his search for justice on behalf of the many older Americans he sees abused, swindled and taken advantage of daily.

Greenwood briefed the AARP Bulletin on how to spot elder abuse and what you can do about it.

Q. Profile an elder abuser.

A. My number one perpetrator of physical elder abuse is the son living at home with his widowed mother. He is between 35 and 50. He is either a single son who has never ever left home, or a divorced son who complains that he cannot pay alimony so he comes back home. Or he has just returned from prison. In every case he is lazy and unemployed.

Q. Any specific traits?

A. He’s addicted to drugs, alcohol or gambling. He steals from his mother in order to feed his addiction. The first thing he takes is her jewelry, which he pawns. Then he steals her checkbook and cashes her pension checks. When his mother finds out, and she confronts him, he hits her in the face.

Q. When you make presentations, how does your audience respond?

A. Many listeners are shocked, but others start whispering. “He just described so-and-so.” So I say, if you think I just described a family you know, I want you to call Adult Protective Services.

Q. You talk about other types of abuse too, correct?

A. A lot of financial abuse scenarios involve unlicensed contractors who rip off elderly homeowners. The opportunistic thief comes to the door looking for an easy target. I show them examples of the telemarketing sweepstakes scams.

I bring in bogus checks and let the audience handle them and look at them.

Q. Why don’t victims report these crimes?

A. Embarrassment. Fear of retaliation. Concern that the adult children or the police will try to remove the victims and put them into a nursing home.

Q. Is that fear justified?

A. It’s a misconception, but it’s out there. Part of my message is to say that it is wrong to stay silent because it gives the crooks more encouragement. They are going do it again to somebody else.

Q: You also educate professionals.

A. I speak at banks and credit unions. I get very upset when I read crime reports showing that an elderly person walked into a bank and asked to withdraw $5,000 in cash. I call the manager and ask, “What are you doing allowing your customers to pull out this kind of money?” And they say, “Well, it is none of our business.” I say, “Yes it is your business.” I just try to make it as difficult as I can for them sometimes.

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