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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.

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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