When an 80-year-old Grantsboro woman was widowed, Thomas Steele was there for her.
As a longtime family friend and pastor, he persuaded her to add him to her bank accounts and to give him power of attorney.
Then, according to prosecutors, he proceeded to steal more than $120,000—her life savings.
The National Council on Aging notes that about 1 in 10 Americans age 60-plus have experienced some form of elder abuse—financial exploitation, physical abuse, emotional abuse or neglect.
According to the North Carolina Senior Tar Heel Legislature, there was a 96 percent increase in elder abuse reports in the state during the past decade.
Fortunately, in the Grantsboro case, the victim’s family realized that something was wrong.
In January, Steele was convicted of embezzlement and exploitation of an older adult, sentenced to six to nine years in prison and ordered to pay $123,367 in restitution.
“The lesson for families is, ask a lot of questions. If bank records and other important items are missing, there’s a reason,” said Chuck Spahos, chief financial crimes prosecutor at the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, who tried the Steele case.
“Many times victims don’t want to report it because they are embarrassed or they’re dependent on the abuser as a caregiver,” said Helen Savage, of Cary, an AARP volunteer who served on a panel examining the state’s adult protective services laws.
Protecting the vulnerable
This month, AARP North Carolina will host a statewide telephone town hall on elder abuse and fraud. It will hold panels across the state later this year.
AARP has also urged state lawmakers to increase funding for adult protective services.
North Carolina’s county social services departments are required to investigate reports of elder abuse and to prevent mistreatment and neglect.
As caseloads have grown, many counties, especially poor rural ones, have struggled to find funding for adult protective services.
“With the forced isolation we are seeing in response to COVID-19, abuse may increase,” said Lisa Riegel, AARP North Carolina advocacy manager.
The state’s law enforcement community has stepped up. Although elder abuse cases can be notoriously difficult to prosecute, local district attorneys now get specific training in how to handle such crimes. Challenges include victims whose cognitive issues make it difficult for them to serve as witnesses. In other cases they are afraid to report abuse, fearing that they will lose their independence or that conditions will worsen.
If you have concerns or see any of these warning signs in an older person, contact your local social services department:
- Seems depressed or withdrawn
- Isolated from friends, family
- Has unexplained bruises, burns or scars
- Appears unbathed, underfed, dehydrated or over- or under- medicated
- Has bed sores or other preventable conditions
- Shows recent changes in banking or spending patterns
Find information about this month’s telephone town hall or elder abuse at aarp.org/nc, or call 866-389-5650. Follow AARP North Carolina on Facebook or Twitter @AARPNC.
Michelle Crouch is a writer living in Charlotte.
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