Hot Topic: Combating Elder Exploitation

Financial exploitation is an important topic in the elder community. The National Center for Elder Abuse has reported that over 5 million elderly per year are victims of financial exploitation. Penn State Dickinson's Elder Protection Clinic has worked on multiple cases involving exploitation of older adults, and, sadly, our investigations often reveal that exploiters are close acquaintances or even relatives of the victims, posing as “caretakers.” Such abusers take advantage of vulnerable persons who are frightened of growing old alone.

Pennsylvania's Older Adult Protective Services law defines exploitation as:

  • An act or course of conduct by a caretaker or other person against an older adult or an older adult's resources,
  • Taken without the informed consent of the older adult OR taken with consent obtained through misrepresentation, coercion or threats of force, that
  • Results in monetary, personal or other benefit, gain or profit for the perpetrator OR that results in monetary or personal loss to the older adult. See 35 P.S. § 10225.101.

In addition to this definition, various Pennsylvania statutes impose criminal sanctions on exploiters, such as sanctions for theft by unlawful taking or disposition, theft by deception and receiving stolen property, theft by failure to make required disposition of funds received and misapplication of entrusted property. Pennsylvania is a leader in recognizing and taking effective criminal action against such abusers. For example, in 2003, in Cumberland County, a husband and wife were convicted of multiple counts of theft through misusing their great-aunt's “power of attorney” to loot more than $600,000 from the lifetime savings of 100-year-old Bertha Trout.

In the Elder Protection Clinic, law students certified to practice law are working with state and county authorities to recover assets for victims of exploitation. In 2007-2008, former clinical intern Trisha Cowart re-joined the clinic after her graduation from Penn State to serve as our inaugural “Elder Protection Fellow,” with an essential role in providing community outreach and education on the issues arising from financial abuse of older adults. Attorney Cowart will be working with Professor Pearson and the visiting staff attorneys at the Clinic. Together they will draw upon clinical experiences to create a comprehensive handbook for the bench, bar and public on identifying and combating financial exploitation, with a goal of establishing streamlined, protective procedures.

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