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Seniors Series: County combats 'silent epidemic' of elder financial abuse

Social Services Agency launches 'Don't Worry Mom' ad campaign

Elder abuse can take a variety of forms, including physical, psychological, emotional and neglect, but the Alameda County Social Services Agency has been working to shine a spotlight on what officials call one of the most under-reported, fastest growing crimes in America -- elder financial abuse.

This past year alone, the agency received approximately 6,000 reports of elder abuse in Alameda County, of these reports more than 70% were financial in nature. And according to Randy Morris, assistant agency director for the Adult and Aging Services Department, these figures likely only represent a fraction of cases that are actually occurring.

"The growing statistic that should concern all of us is the number of seniors who are swelling the homeless ranks. In most instances seniors find themselves homeless because they have fallen victim to financial exploitation or property theft," he said in a statement.

Morris added that these abuses do not have to result in this tragic end and that resources are available to help victims: "We offer services to victims who have been financially exploited, and in many cases we (are) able to intervene before their savings are wiped out. That is why it is so important to report abuse when it is first suspected."

Identifying elder financial abuse is one of the most important steps in combating it, according to Vanessa Baker, program manager for the county's Adult Protective Services.

The crime can take many forms, but county officials said common scenarios can include: a senior being tricked into paying cash for unnecessary work on their home, being encouraged to donate to a fictitious charity, a caretaker using victim's finances for their own needs or a victim signing over important documents -- such as power of attorney or property transfers -- without comprehending the transaction.

"The most important thing to do is call Adult Protective Services," Baker said when asked what someone can do if they suspect a case of elder abuse. "We have an intake staffing unit of individuals who can talk with any caller, whether it is just to inquire or to actually make a report of abuse. They are a resource in terms of providing support and also referring out."

"For example, if someone calls and they are just inquiring -- 'I don't know if there is actual abuse, what are some questions I can ask?' -- the intake workers can give guidance," she said, adding that "even if there is no true indication, our office will always take a report of any suspected case ... because that is our job, to investigate."

Baker went on to say the "silent epidemic" of elder financial abuse is worsened by the fact that so few cases get reported, citing that only one in 14 actual instances of elder abuse are reported to authorities.

To help combat abuse and let victims know that there are resources available that can help, the agency this summer relaunched its public service announcement "Don't Worry Mom," to play on airways during Elder Abuse Awareness Month.

"Don't Worry Mom" highlights key facts and signs that can help individuals identify elder abuse and perpetual perpetrators -- the commercial also highlights the fact the majority of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members -- as well as resources for where victims can receive help.

"Beginning in 2015 we embarked on a project ... to look at a way to reach a larger population to bring awareness to the silent epidemic of elder abuse," Baker said of the campaign. "We wanted to drive home that not only is financial abuse a silent epidemic and may be happening within your own family, but that there are resources available to help individuals, whether they are being abused themselves or they know someone who is being abused."

People interested in obtaining more information or who wish to report adult or elder abuse are encouraged to call 24 hours a day: 510-577-3500 or toll free at 866-225-5277 (866-CALL-APS). Trained callers are available to take anonymous reports, give referrals to helpful resources or just answer questions.

Residents can also learn more online at www.alamedasocialservices.org.

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