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In an average week, Utah seniors lose $1 million to thieves.

That's the grim finding of a new state study of elder financial abuse, which concluded the perpetrators are overwhelmingly the people seniors need to trust the most: their children and grandchildren.

These betrayers steal cars and pawn wheelchairs, refuse to pay rent to live in their parents' homes and steal their medications. More often, they appropriate credit cards, loot bank accounts or forge checks.

The criminal activity costs all of society, says Jilenne Gunther, legal enforcement counsel for the Utah Division of Aging & Adult Services Elder Rights program. Her report, released last week and based on 2009 statistics, found that thefts ranging from $35 to $745,640 cost seniors, taxpayers, businesses and the government $51,506,100.

Financial institutions saw $30 million stolen; Utahns paid an estimated $7.8 million to care for elders impoverished to the point they turned to Medicaid for health care.

Affinity fraud, in which swindlers use personal or church connections to con people out of their money, has gotten a lot of attention in Utah. But advocates have had difficulty getting law enforcement to pay attention to fraud within families. For years, it was considered akin to a family squabble, and as with child and spousal abuse decades ago, was regarded as a problem best solved in the home.

"We couldn't get the attention because we're just social workers," says Peter Hebertson, Salt Lake County Aging Services outreach director.

But financial theft represents the most prevalent type of elder abuse in Utah, Gunther says. Amid budget cuts, she undertook her study to justify a focus on combatting it.

'It's going to be mine' • The report looked at 57 confirmed cases of elder financial exploitation, which Gunther says is probably 90 percent too conservative. She estimates that for every 10 actual incidents, only one is reported.

Some costs of such abuse couldn't be quantified, such as loss of public housing, the consequences of drug dealers and users moving into a home, reverse mortgages gone bad, bank and credit-union liabilities due to fraud, utility shutoffs due to unpaid bills and mental and emotional damage to the elders themselves.

According to Gunther's study, only 11 percent of perpetrators are strangers. Family members are responsible for 72 percent of all elder financial abuse cases.

"That is what makes it so insidious," says Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.

Gunther's study found that only 2 percent of referral calls to Adult Protective Services came from the victims themselves.

In a separate survey of the legal needs of 1,000 Meals on Wheels clients in Utah, 6 percent reported having been financially abused. An additional 11 percent reported circumstances that would be considered financial exploitation, but didn't report being abused.

The finding indicates elders might be embarrassed about what their families are doing or, conversely, unaware they are being robbed.

"What you see happening," says Sgt. Troy Carr of the Unified Police Department's Special Victims Unit, "is all [the victims'] assets are dwindling, and not slowly."

Even when elders have granted financial power of attorney to their children or grandchildren, "right of access does not mean right of ownership," says Deputy District Attorney Alicia Cook.

Still, "I haven't heard a case," Carr says, "where I haven't heard, 'Well, it's going to be mine, anyway.' "

That, Cook says, is a common yet terrible misunderstanding. "A will is not effective," she says, "until the person dies."

Seeking justice • Utah law, amended in 2009, has made it mandatory to immediately report suspicions of elder abuse to the state or the police. State officials don't need proof from tipsters and don't want them to do their own investigations.

Of the allegations made to the agency, 21 percent came from banks and credit unions, Gunther's study shows. Her agency is working to educate financial institutions about preventing elder exploitation.

Two years ago, the Legislature cut more than 20 percent of the agency's budget without narrowing its charge to protect seniors. But its three intake workers are keeping up with statewide caseloads for now, said spokeswoman Debbie Booth.

Even when reported to police, some of the agency's 2009 cases were set aside as too complex or for being civil not criminal matters, Gunther's report says. One case resulted in an arrest, while others remain under investigation.

Figuring out how to get justice for elderly victims becomes complicated when victims don't want to testify against family, or when witnesses can't be found or can't testify due to mental impairment.

To help overcome the barriers that complicate prosecuting cases, a Salt Lake panel under the direction of Hebertson, Cook, Carr, and Adult Protective Services Director Nan Mendenhall began meeting in June. Members gather as often as once a week to evaluate cases for possible charges. The group also includes a psychologist, a representative of the Aging Services ombudsman's office and an officer from the Salt Lake City Police Department.

The sessions can result in charges but perhaps more importantly, build understanding of how to probe these crimes. The panel has screened 25 cases, and the first prosecution is scheduled for trial next month.

On a recent Monday afternoon, the group listened as officers from two agencies laid out cases. One was a spiderweb of family members draining an elder's wealth; the other, a serious criminal matter requiring further investigation.

Gill says he's fully committed to the panel and wants to make sure police officers get the training they need to recognize offenses against elders.

He likens the task to his days as an environmental-crimes prosecutor, when officers who responded to a situation — say, a fight in a garage where the combatants knocked over a barrel of oil that wound up in a storm drain — didn't recognize the collateral damage as a separate, and perhaps more serious, violation.

When police officers respond to domestic abuse calls in homes with children, they routinely call for child protection services. But officers at the same scene might not notice the 75-year-old malnourished grandmother sitting in a bare room with unexplained bruises on her arms.

Just as with children, Gill says, "the elderly, vulnerable adult needs to be interviewed. They both represent vulnerable populations subject to exploitation and abuse."

Probing financial abuse of elders

A new report by the Utah Division of Aging and Adult ServicesServices tallies the financial costs of elder exploitation, an analysis no other state has done, says the agency's legal enforcement counsel, Jilenne Gunther. The Utah Bar Association is now offering assistance to other states, and the American Bar Association is trying to develop grant funding for similar programs, she said.