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Astor Case Raises Awareness of Elder Abuse and Need to Fight It

Though understanding the testimony at times seemed to require an MBA degree, experts say the trial sent out a strong message. Since the trial began in April, “we have actually seen an uptick in the number of [financial elder abuse] inquiries,” says Sharon Merriman-Nai, comanager of the National Center on Elder Abuse. “I can’t say with certainty that it’s directly related to the Astor trial, but it was a very public case.”

And financial elder abuse is a very pervasive problem. A conservative estimate of the annual cost of the crime is $2.6 billion, according to the study “Broken Trust: Elders, Family, and Finances” released in March by the Metlife Mature Market Institute. As in the Astor case, financial abuse is typically committed by a person the victim trusted. In 55 percent of the financial elder abuse cases, the perpetrator was a family member, friend, neighbor or caregiver. In another 18 percent of the cases, the perpetrator was a financial professional working for the victim. Only 21 percent of the fraud was committed by a scam artist previously unknown to the victims.

Given those statistics, perhaps the most important lesson from the Astor trial, Merriman-Nai says, is that if financial abuse can happen to a rich and famous woman like Astor, it can happen to anybody. “There are many, many people out there being taken advantage of in much smaller ways,” she says. “It may be smaller dollar amounts than in the Astor case, but it can be just as devastating in their lives. The point [the trial made was] this occurs everywhere.”

The impact of the Astor case on the national elder abuse debate would have been drastically different, some experts say, had the jury come back with a different verdict. An acquittal or even a mistrial might have had a “chilling effect” on prosecutors’ offices across the nation, says Thomas Hafemeister, a University of Virginia law professor studying the prosecution of elder abuse crimes. “It would have been very demoralizing for prosecutors in general and the numerous offices across the country that are establishing special elder abuse/fraud units in particular if the defendants had been found not guilty,” he says.

But “in part driven by the attention given to this case” and because of the “greater numbers, greater wealth and greater political mobilization” of the nation’s elderly population, Hafemeister says, “societal attention to financial abuse of the elderly is likely to increase.”

Publicity from the Astor case may finally help usher into law the Elder Justice Act, which has been introduced but has died in every Congress since 2002. It was added to the Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform bill five days after the jury delivered a verdict in the Astor trial. The trial “helped raise the visibility of elder abuse and the need to pass the Elder Justice Act,” says Rhonda Richards, AARP’s senior legislative representative.

The act would provide funds to the notoriously underfunded state agencies that provide adult protective services. Those monies would be used to improve or bolster reporting mechanisms, investigations, prosecutions and training focused on detecting and recognizing elder abuse.

“That’s basically the missing link, people’s inability to know what elder abuse is and report it,” says Blancato of the Elder Justice Coalition.

Though Philip Marshall couldn’t fathom that his guardianship petition would become the jumping off point on the financial elder abuse debate, he says he is hopeful that this issue will define the legacy of his grandmother even more than the $200 million she gave away to charity or any of the causes she championed while living.

“I think it has started a national conversation on the problem of elder abuse,” says Philip Marshall, who is a professor of historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. “It continues and it will continue. While my grandmother didn’t choose this, this may be her lasting legacy in a good way over even the other philanthropic work she has done in New York City. The importance of this issue exceeds the gravitational force of New York. This is nationwide.”

Sean Gardiner is a veteran journalist who most recently covered the criminal justice system for the Village Voice.

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