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Quiet Crimes: Elder Abuse On Rise In Washington

You might think the elderly are targeted by strangers, but more often, it’s someone they know.

Now prosecutors say that crimes against vulnerable adults are on the rise.

Washington state’s Adult Protective Services saw a 48-percent increase over five years in reports of suspected abuse, neglect and financial exploitation involving this population.

Attacked By A Caregiver

About three years ago, Dana Sibley needed a place to live. She was 60 years old. She had a series of medical problems that landed her in the hospital for six months. In the process her left leg was amputated above the knee.

“When I got out I wanted some form of independent life,” she says, “but I had to live in adult family home until I was strong enough to get around on my own.”

But Sibley had no home to go back to after rehab. She had lost her apartment while in the hospital. She mentioned her predicament to the resident caretaker.

“She had a friend who was visiting her who was also in the same business and he would come over for lunch,” Sibley says. “I had known him for about 5 to 6 months, and he said his mother had a home that she wanted to rent out.”

Sibley did rent the house, a little blue house on the edge of Shoreline. But she didn’t realize that the man, the caretaker’s friend, was also living there.

Sibley was surprised, but went along with it. At first, he was kind. He would offer to pick up lunch, or take her to the grocery. But then he became too friendly.

“Like if I sat down in the same room, his hand would go on my knee,” says Sibley. “And I would just simply lift it off and take it off and say, I’m not interested.”

But he persisted. Sibley says it got worse when he drank. She tried to barricade her room, but he attacked her.

“I was in a wheelchair, which he used to his advantage. He would step in front of me and I couldn’t stand up, let alone get away from him,” she says. “I couldn’t wheel forward and he would put the back of the chair against the wall – I couldn’t wheel backwards.”

Sibley didn’t report the assault. She thought the problem would resolve itself. But it didn’t. Sibley says after he assaulted her a second time, she called a friend who picked her up. This time she filed a report.

Power Imbalance

Elder abuse often comes in the form of financial exploitation, neglect or sexual assault. Financial abuse and neglect are the most common. But Sibley’s story shows a pattern.

Kathi Church, a case manager with Seattle’s Aging And Disability Services, says power and control is a persistent theme.

“The power that the perpetrator will yield over the survivor, the victim,” says Church, “that’s the constant across these cases,” Church says.

Church helped Sibley find a home and connect her with social services. She says often victims are isolated, or homebound. They have health issues that limit their ability to care for themselves.

In many cases, they have cognitive problems such as dementia. These situations make them vulnerable, an easy prey for people they trust, like a family member.

“It can be a neighbor, a church congregant or friend that decides to help you,” Church says. “And before you know it that person has signed on a durable power of attorney for finances.”

Church says by the time victims come to her for help they’ve lost everything – their life savings, their home.

A Fraction Of Cases

Elder abuse cases are often complicated and emotional to prosecute.

Page Ulrey, a senior prosecuting attorney at the King County Prosecutor’s Office, calls out to her officemate, a 12-year-old Labrador mix named Ellie. Ellie works with vulnerable adults during the trial process.

“She actually also sits with victims sometimes when they testify at trial, and comforts them," says Ulrey. "(It) helps them feel a little more calm and also gives them a bit of dignity as they go through this rather degrading process.”

Ulrey has prosecuted people who prey on elders since the elder abuse project was created in 2001. She says instances of elder abuse increases every year. There aren’t enough data to show how fast it’s growing, but she believes it’s more prevalent than what’s being reported.

“One in every 23 cases of elder abuse is reported, so we’re only dealing with a tiny fraction of cases,” she says. “As far as financial exploitation, cases are concerned, we think we’re only seeing one in 44 cases.”

Elder abuse crimes are often complex. And part of the challenge in the criminal justice system is that not many detectives or prosecutors are trained to properly investigate these cases.

Ulrey says victims live with the aftermath of the abuse for a long time. They can’t recover their losses or earn that money again. Beyond the financial damage, Ulrey says their sense of safety is ruined, too.

“So many times when I talk to victims of financial exploitation, they would say, ‘I feel so stupid,’ and it’s just heartbreaking to see that because what happens to them is so human,” she says. “The perpetrator was someone who earned their trust.”

Peace In The Morning

Dana Sibley currently lives on her own in an apartment in Bellevue. Her patio looks out to the trees and the green grass.

“I like that sense of peace in the morning when you just have a cold or hot drink and sitting on the patio you just let your mind clear,” Sibley says.

She has put the past behind her, but it took time to work through her fears. At first she had trouble sleeping. And there were times when she felt on guard.

“I didn’t feel angry, I just felt shocked, like was it my fault, was I giving out signals?” she says. “But when I played it back, I was saying no every time, and just wasn’t being listened to.”

Sibley later found out the man who attacked her had also assaulted other women. He had been operating as a caregiver without a license. He was convicted, and found guilty. Eventually he was deported to his native Fiji.