Opinion

The vulnerability of seniors | Guest column

By Rob McKenna, Washington state Attorney General

As The Mirror reported on May 5, a Federal Way man has been charged with theft for draining his 93-year-old mother’s bank accounts.

Authorities say Barry Brown used his power of attorney to access his dementia-suffering mom’s bank accounts. He spent her money on trips to casinos and country clubs, in smoke shops and in tanning salons, and to pay his own health insurance bills. Meanwhile, his mother was evicted from a nursing home because her bills weren’t paid. The son is also accused of taking out a reverse mortgage on his mother’s condo, effectively using it as a cash machine while she was moved to state-funded care.

Under state law, what’s the potential punishment for a man accused of going on a spending spree with an ailing woman’s credit and life savings? The law allows for a sentence of about three months for the defendant’s single count of first-degree theft.

This case is a stark demonstration that the available punishments for those who parasitically feed on the earnings of vulnerable seniors are grossly insufficient. My office has made stronger protections for vulnerable adults a top priority.

The United States is in the midst of huge demographic shifts, with a third of our population reaching retirement age in the next few years. On Jan. 1, 2006, baby boomers began turning 60 at the rate of one every 7.5 seconds. The criminally minded stalk this growing population of seniors, waiting to pounce on those who, by virtue of their age, are more likely to be isolated and struggle with poor health.

The stories of exploitation are increasingly common, often involving a senior living in pathetic circumstances while a family member or friend siphons away money from her accounts, maxes out credit cards, uses her property to obtain a loan or all of the above.

During the last legislative session, my office called for improving the ability of bank and credit union employees to identify and report financial exploitation, granting permission to “freeze” accounts when appropriate. We tried to boost your access to information about the background of potential caretakers, and we suggested additional penalties for those who prey on vulnerable citizens.

Unfortunately, legislators elected not to enact our bill. Had it passed, a man convicted of stealing his mother’s life savings while leaving taxpayers to pay her bills could face three years behind bars instead of just three months.

We’ll be back next session to once again push for these protections. But there are a few things you can do today to protect seniors. If you suspect abuse, call local law enforcement or Adult Protective Services at (866) 363-4276. If a loved one is the victim of financial exploitation, you may want to meet with an elder law attorney to discuss future protective measures, including a durable power of attorney or full guardianship.

National Elder Abuse Awareness Day is Monday, June 15. On that day, and from every day forward, let’s pledge to do more to protect our parents and our grandparents. They looked after us when we were young and vulnerable, and they’ve earned our protection today.

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