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Ending Elder Abuse

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

Q: The Elder Abuse Victims Act, which would provide some funding for prosecution, is winding its way through Congress. What impact would its passage have on these crimes?

A. First, it would be a tremendous morale booster to the local Adult Protective Services caseworker. As I travel around the country, I see a growing sense of pessimism among people on the frontlines. Their resources are being cut as more and more cases are coming to light. If the feds do pass legislation, it will put on the table that elder abuse is a serious, serious problem. It’s escalating and we need to give the people on the frontlines some resources.

Q. What other impact?

A. Elder abuse needs a national discussion and a national agenda, like ones we’ve had for child abuse and domestic violence for so long. But when was the last time you saw, for example, Oprah talking about elder abuse? I mean, it’s just not being discussed in the same manner—and it needs to be.

Q. Does your team address nursing home issues as well?

A. That’s always been a sticky situation. Nursing homes typically are reluctant to report immediately. The only way I sometimes hear about these cases is by asking the state department that oversees nursing homes to send me copies of citations that they have already issued on specific homes. Then I phone or e-mail someone and ask, what happened to that investigation? In my view, there is a crime here.

Q. That’s scary. So if you didn’t pick up the phone, these crimes would just go unprosecuted?

A. Exactly. In fact, if I hadn’t pestered the state department, they wouldn’t have been sending me these citations anyway.

Q. Is elder abuse seen as a non-crime and not serious enough to be prosecuted?

A. Very much so. When I speak, my most popular message is destroying the misconceptions. And one of the biggest is that this is just a civil matter.

Q. By that you mean because it involves money?

A. Yes, that it involves a contract, maybe an unlicensed contractor who has done some work but who has either reneged on the agreement or disappeared with the money.

Q. Which is more common, physical or financial abuse?

A. Out of all my cases I would say about 65 percent have a financial exploitation component. I get many calls from people who are frustrated because they tried to report a financial exploitation case and were told they had to sue.

Q. Is that a bias against older people who law enforcement believes might have been confused—or is that a matter of law enforcement not being educated enough about the law?

A. It’s a mixture. Many police officers and detectives are not trained to understand what constitutes theft. There are many ways—subtle, manipulative ways—to steal from an elder, some subtle, manipulative ways.

Q. An example?

A. Say the suspect meets the elderly victim and starts to build a friendship, showering the unsuspecting victim with kindness and companionship. The suspect then tells the victim that his car has been stolen and that he needs to borrow $17,000 to purchase a car. The victim willingly writes out a check for $17,000. The suspect makes no repayments.

When this scenario is shared with the police, they say, “I don’t see a crime here. That’s a consensual transaction, and if you now have a dispute over it, you need to sue that person.”

Q. What’s your advice?

A. Dig deeper. Ask more questions. Look at the whole picture. Has this person done this to other people?

Q. Do you have any recent cases that made your job feel particularly worthwhile?

A. We had a case that received a lot of local attention, and the primary perpetrator received two consecutive life sentences plus nine years on top of that.

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