Published in Pawtucket Times, October 31, 2014
In 2005, 80-year old Jane Jacques suffered her second stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. With no family living nearby, the widow’s physician determined that she could no longer live independently at home. The Department of Elderly Affairs asked the Alliance for Better Long Term Care to find Ms. Jacques a guardian. The probate court appointed Janet Mastronardi, to serve as guardian, making the East Greenwich attorney responsible for the older woman’s personal and financial well-being.
Over the next five years, Mastronardi embezzled and misappropriated approximately $130,000 from Jacques’ accounts, leaving her near penniless. An employee of lawyer noticed the financial irregularities while preparing an accounting of Jacques’ finances for the probate court and contacted the Rhode Island State Police, who conducted an investigation.
Earlier this year, Mastronardi pled guilty to her crimes of financial exploitation and although the Attorney General’s Office sought jail time, the Court ordered her to seven years, with 30 months to serve in home confinement and the remaining 54 months suspended with probation. In addition, the Court ordered her to pay full restitution to Jacques’ estate.
This case clearly illustrates the hidden problem of financial exploitation on older victims who oftentimes are unwilling to report this abuse because for fear of losing support of their family member or caregiver or future retaliation of these individuals. Simply put, this abuse occurs when deception, coercion, undue influence or misrepresentation is used, like the above example, to obtain unauthorized use of the older person’s property, money, pension book or other valuables.
But, the National Center on Elder Abuse, as well as other elder advocate organizations, has called financial exploitation of elders “the crime of the century.”
Aging advocates say there is currently reliable current data available on the precedence of financial exploitation. But, according to a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust (IPT), more than seven million older Americans – one out of every five citizens over the age of 65 – already have been victimized by a financial scam. One year later, a MetLife study reported the huge impact of this problem, noting that the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008.
Combatting Financial Exploitation in Rhode Island
Just two days ago, the state’s Rhode Island Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, brought together the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), local and state police, fire, social service agencies, and banks and other financial institutions to put the spotlight on financial exploitation
The half day event, hosted by the Rhode Island Citizens Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, at the CVS Health Finance Center in Cumberland, provided over 100 attendees an in-depth look at how financial crimes cases against older persons are developed, investigated and prosecuted, as well as a discussion on best practices for financial institutions to identity financial exploitation.
Financial Exploitation a Change to Investigate
Keynote speaker, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, stated “As striking as that figure is, government statistics estimate that financial exploitation is a highly underreported crime because many of the victims are unaware they are being duped or they are too frightened to even report this crime. Many elders rely on others they believe they can trust to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard-earned money. In some cases, the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless. Financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging charges to investigate and prosecute,” said.
Recognizing the challenging factors in investigating and prosecuting elder abuse, including financial exploitation, the AG’s Office has created the Elder Abuse Unit, to handle those type of cases, says Kilmartin, noting that the specialized unit was created in recognition of the fact that the proportion of the state’s population over age 60 is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so. The Elder Abuse Unit is responsible for investigative management and prosecution of crimes involving elderly victims of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation
Since it was established in 2006, the Elder Abuse Unit has seen a steady increase in the number of cases reported and prosecuted, noted Kilmartin, adding that the Office in its first year prosecuted 65 cases of elder abuse, including physical and financial exploitation. Last year, 140 individuals were prosecuted, an increase of 115 percent in less than ten years, he says…
Kilmartin credited the dramatic increase in prosecutions to a recognition by society that financial exploitation is a crime and should be prosecuted. “Like other forms of elder abuse, financial exploitation is a complex problem and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it. I have made it a priority to educate the public, law enforcement, healthcare professionals and the financial industry on the signs of financial exploitation and the numbers prove that increased awareness has directly led to increased reporting and prosecuting,” stated Kilmartin.
The Attorney General called on banking and financial industry to understand and know the signs of financial exploitation, as they are most likely to catch irregular transactions by perpetrators. “As many elders still regularly go to the bank, bank personnel are in a good position to notice suspicious activity and behavior,” he added.
John Clarkson, former Pawtucket Police Officer who now serves as Assistant Vice President of Security at Pawtucket Credit Union, led a presentation at the conference discussing how bank employees need to be aware of the various signs that an elder may be being exploited and ways to stop it.
“It’s unfortunate but our elders are a prime target for financial exploitation. It is important that we at Pawtucket Credit Union and at other financial institutions train our front line staff and management to identify when this is occurring, prevent it if possible, and most importantly report it immediately. When discovered we have worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to have those responsible prosecuted,” Clarkson said.
Kilmartin stressed that it is equally important for family members and friends to prevent and report instances of financial exploitation. He urges, family, friends and neighbors to take note of what may be happening with older relatives or neighbors. “If anything seems suspicious, such as the person seems to be withdrawn, nervous, fearful or anxious, especially around certain people, when they have not seemed so in the past, it is important to report the matter to the appropriate authorities,” he recommends.
Abuse and self-neglect reports can be filed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and on nights, weekends, and holidays, by calling 401-462-0555. Reports can be filed anonymously and are confidential. In filing a report of alleged abuse, you should give as much detail as possible, including the name of the elder, address, and contact information. If reporting to law enforcement, contact your police department, the Rhode Island State Police at 401-444-1000, or the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400.
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.