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Attorney general: Everyone has role in preventing elder abuse

Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna speaks about abuse of the elderly and disabled before an AARP meeting Friday at the Renton Senior Center. - Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter
Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna speaks about abuse of the elderly and disabled before an AARP meeting Friday at the Renton Senior Center.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter

State Attorney General Rob McKenna found an attentive audience Friday afternoon as he presented a strong message about how to prevent the widespread and growing problem of elder abuse.

McKenna was speaking before the AARP, Renton Chapter 414, at the Renton Senior Center.

The speech roughly marked the three-year anniversary of a state program to combat abuse of the elderly and disabled. In 2008 there were nearly 14,400 complaints reported and today officials receive about 100 complaints daily about abuse.

Abuse of the elderly and the disabled knows no barriers, cutting across age, culture, race and socioeconomics, McKenna said.

Services are available to help the elderly and laws have been strengthened to punish those who abuse them. But McKenna said everyone plays a role in protecting the elderly and disabled.

"We have to learn how to protect ourselves, our families and our friends," he said.

First, people must learn the warning signs of abuse and get over any fear of reporting it, he said.

Those mostly likely to be victimized are women, those with mental or physical disabilities of any age and those isolated from friends and family, he said.

The state Legislature adopted a new law this session for that reason.

"It's more serious when someone who can't defend herself is victimized," McKenna said.

The drive for the legislation, called the Vulnerable Adults Law, began in 2006, based on the statistics and anecdotal stories. Those stories included one in which an elderly retired teacher at Sammamish High School lost her home to a scam perpetrated by a relative.

McKenna, informed of the situation, referred the case to county prosecutors. The relative was found guilty. He later died, but the equity in the house was gone. The woman still must live with relatives.

It became apparent, McKenna said, that "we needed to do more."

A summit was held, a plan of action was devised and comprehensive legislation was introduced in 2009. It received hearings but wasn't adopted until this year's legislative session. Word of its approval drew a "yay" from someone in the audience.

A key provision allows a financial institution to place a hold on a suspicious transaction for three days without fear of legal action. Bank employees are trained to spot such exploitation, McKenna said.

Such training worked in Issaquah when a woman married an older man, then immediately went to a bank to add herself to the man's bank accounts. The man seemed confused and bank officials become suspicious. The woman was arrested; she was the man's physical therapist.

An idea still pending because of budget cuts is an online system in which records of adult caregivers are available. McKenna said it's easier to learn the backgrounds of plumbers and landscapers than it is to find out about those who care for the elderly.

McKenna also took questions.

A durable power of attorney, designed to allow a trusted family member or friend to manage someone's financial affairs, "is a good tool if it's in the right hands." But that person has to act in the best interest of the beneficiary, he said. That authority, he said, "is not a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Help for those facing foreclosure of their homes is available at the state's Homeownership Hotline, 877-894-4663, or online.

"We are trying to prevent foreclosure," he said.

He urges that anyone seeking help privately should not pay a fee up-front.

Along with federal regulators, the state is looking at the practice of reverse mortgages, or basically arranging with an institution to live off the equity in a home.

The fees are often expensive and there have been abuses, he said.

Those interested in a reverse mortgage should initiate the process, he said.

It's a "warning flag" when someone is approached with an offer for a reverse mortgage, he said.

McKenna smiled when he was asked whether he will run for governor. He said he will consider that next year.

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