The 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Edith+Eddie tells the story of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, who marry in their mid-90s and become known online as "America’s oldest interracial couple". More than an inspiring love story, theirs also is a cautionary and heart-breaking tale about the state of elder justice and guardianship in the US as Hill's daughters battle over her care and the wishes of the couple to remain together. More →
This blog features an interview with Liz Loewy and spotlights the importance of reporting and prosecuting elder abuse cases. Ms. Loewy served as the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Office Elder Abuse Unit Chief for 18 years until last summer, and was lead prosecutor in the criminal trial involving the late Brooke Astor. Here she draws from her experience prosecuting this case as well as hundreds of other elder financial exploitation cases she handled during her time at the Manhattan DA’s Office.
In New York State, most professionals are not mandatory elder abuse reporters; however, Adult Protective Services and some health care facility workers are mandated to report to police if they believe a crime has occurred. As in the Astor case, petitions brought in civil courtrooms can lead to evidence of criminal activity which may then be referred onto law enforcement. Ms. Loewy believes that families and professionals should be encouraged to report if they believe a crime has occurred.1
According to Ms. Loewy, it is crucial to convey to victims and survivors of elder financial fraud that reporting potential criminal activity to law enforcement should be, and in fact usually is, a way to ensure that justice prevails. While reporting may be daunting to family members or close friends of the older adult who experienced the abuse, a referral to a police officer or prosecutor can be a surprisingly positive experience.
In New York City, DAs’ Offices have specialized Elder Abuse Units, coordinators or social workers, and are working towards a more victim-centered approach in investigating and prosecuting cases. On occasion, specially trained dogs are used to make an older witness who likes animals feel more comfortable in law enforcement settings. Police officers and prosecutors often make house calls and/or meet in coffee shops to conduct interviews so victims and survivors don’t have to travel to the Criminal Court building.
Law enforcement professionals understand the dynamics involved in elder exploitation cases, especially when a family member is the abuser, and work to make an older adult’s journey through the criminal justice system as easy as possible. Older adults should be assured that when a son or daughter victimizes a parent in a financial crime, it’s no reflection on them or their child-rearing, and that it can happen in any family. Court prosecution may present an extremely stressful and traumatic experience for victims and advocates. In addition, a parent who has been victimized may feel a tortuous mix of fear, guilt, shame and love for their child – even through the abuse.
Police and prosecutors understand that victimization may cause the older adult to feel not only trauma, but a lack of control. And after reporting, professionals work to prevent older adults from feeling victimized a second time by the system. However, if a crime has occurred, law enforcement can’t treat the case as a “private prosecution.” There may be times when the victim’s wishes and prosecutor’s goals for the outcome of the case differ. Ms. Loewy explained that, when she handled these cases, she worked to ensure that the victim’s wishes were stated “on the record” in open court – even if they differed from the DA’s Office’s recommendation. This clarifies that it’s the prosecutor’s office, and not the victim, controlling the case, and it may keep the victim safer if and when the defendant is paroled.
Key advantages to pursuing a case in criminal court, if the evidence supports charges, include:
- A measure of justice: Defendants need to be held accountable for their criminal behavior.
- Issuance of an order of protection: A criminal court judge may issue an order of protection, which may be full or limited, while the case is pending and/or at sentence.
- Incarceration of the abuser: In addition to providing a just punishment, this may enable the victim to live at home or move to a new location with an increased sense of security – at least for the period of incarceration.
- Mental health or substance abuse treatment for the abuser: A judge can order treatment as a condition of sentence – in certain cases. This may be appropriate in certain cases, and can be comforting to relatives of a defendant with such issues.
- Restitution: In certain cases, the judge may order restitution as a condition of sentence. This way, the victim can be reimbursed for losses without having to hire an attorney for litigation in civil court.
- Information revealed through a criminal investigation can assist in determinations made in probate court: The Astor case was an example, in that the probate proceedings after Mrs. Astor’s passing were informed by evidence uncovered in the criminal trial. As a result, Ms. Astor’s wishes with respect to certain charitable bequests were fulfilled.
Ms. Loewy urges victims of financial exploitation to recognize that elder abuse may be criminal, when warranted by the facts of the case. She believes we do a disservice to elder abuse victims by treating cases “differently” when relatives are involved. As evidenced by the Astor case, financial crimes can often be prosecuted – even if a victim is cognitively impaired or has passed away. While the amount of money and high profile nature of the Astor case distinguished it from other financial exploitation prosecutions, in most ways it had many similarities to cases commonly encountered by elder abuse prosecutors around the country. A family member took advantage of an impaired older relative – and a power of attorney was involved as a vehicle to steal. For these reasons, the case can serve as a good example of how prosecutors and family members can work together to provide justice for older, vulnerable victims.
Ms. Loewy is currently General Counsel and Senior Vice President at EverSafe, a technology service that monitors for elder financial exploitation and identity theft. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
By Elizabeth Bloemen, MPH, NYCEAC Social Media Associate and Cara Kenien, LMSW, MPA, NYCEAC Social Media Manager
- If a victim or loved one is not sure whether a crime has occurred, or would like more information before reporting, they can call the D.A.’s Office and describe the facts of the case as a hypothetical or John/Jane Doe situation to get more information. [↩]