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

At its heart, the case against Anthony Marshall, the son of renowned New York philanthropist Brooke Astor, is no different from thousands and thousands of other crimes against elders: a trusted caregiver takes advantage of an older person’s declining state to enrich himself.

True enough. But that’s a little like saying the Queen Mary II and a dinghy are both boats.

In many ways the Astor case, which ended in Manhattan last week with Marshall’s conviction on charges that he defrauded his mother, was a once-in-a-lifetime legal saga. It showcased A-list celebrity witnesses like Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters. It peered voyeuristically into the opulent lifestyle and dysfunction of the grande dame’s family. And it laid bare the financial and legal machinations it took to siphon off a $185 million fortune.

All of that glamour, glitz, gossip and detail through 19 weeks of daily full-press coverage could have overwhelmed the elder abuse issue at the case’s core.

But it didn’t, elder abuse professionals and experts say. In fact, there are signs that the trial raised the public’s awareness and understanding of elder abuse. It’s likely that prosecutors will be emboldened to bring more suspected abusers to trial. And the Elder Justice Act, a bill that would authorize millions of dollars to protect older people, but which has languished in Congress since 2002, might have received a boost from the trial’s publicity. It was attached as an amendment to the health care reform bill approved by the Senate Finance Committee this week.

The Astor case also brought to the fore crimes often overlooked as elder abuse: financial exploitation, for example. After deliberating for 12 sometimes contentious days, the jury convicted Anthony Marshall, who turned 85 during the trial, of committing a scheme to defraud, grand larceny and 12 other counts of financial misdeeds. Marshall’s lawyer friend and codefendant, Francis X. Morrissey, was also found guilty of forging one of Astor’s wills.

“This case raised awareness to a new level on what constitutes elder abuse,” says Robert B. Blancato, national coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, which includes AARP.

That wasn’t expected three years ago when a petition filed by Astor’s grandson Philip Marshall to have Anthony Marshall, his father, removed as his grandmother’s guardian thrust the case into public light. “The big issue we were concerned about was the psychological abuse, which was prominent,” Philip Marshall told the Bulletin. “Undue influence would be a polite way of describing this. But it went far beyond undue influence. This was psychological warfare in an effort to get what they wanted out of her.”

Initial stories of Astor’s mistreatment at the hands of her only child detailed her abuse by neglect and mistreatment: cutting back on everything from her doctor visits to the brand of makeup she used; dressing her in rags and not allowing nurses to buy her a new outfit for her 104th birthday; locking her beloved dogs, Boysie and Girlsie, away from her because they damaged the antique furniture.

“Her bedroom is so cold in the winter that my grandmother is forced to sleep in the TV room in torn nightgowns on a filthy couch that smells, probably from dog urine,” stated Philip Marshall’s guardianship petition.

But between the filing of that petition and Anthony Marshall’s criminal trial, the case evolved. The majority of hard evidence available to the lawyers, first in the guardianship case and then in the criminal investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, centered around financial documents: wills, deed transfers and letters from Anthony Marshall, who had power of attorney for his mother, authorizing a $1 million retroactive raise for himself for overseeing his mother’s finances.

There was a paper trail of financial exploitation, but the neglect and mistreatment allegations were mostly culled from the subjective observations of the Astor staff. When Judge A. Kirke Bartley Jr. barred almost all the testimony about Astor’s purported physical abuse and neglect, it ensured that the trial would focus on financial exploitation by a loved one.

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