By Candace Burns
MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) -
Every year, more than two million older Americans are victims of elder abuse.
The abuse comes in many forms: Physical, psychological and even financial.
The problem is on the rise around the country and here in Mid-Michigan.
Now, budget cuts are slowing down a local task force that's working to stop the problem.
Every day in Genesee County and across Mid-Michigan, elderly people are physically, financially, and sometimes sexually, abused.
Vulnerable adults are forced to live in inhumane conditions.
The neglect doesn't come from just strangers; in most cases, it's a family member or caregiver committing the crime.
"Even though they are competent, they aren't making good decisions, or they are being threatened or bullied," said Diane Nims of Adult Protective Services.
Sergeant Pete Stocchi sees the abuse first hand. He looks into cases reported to the Genesee County Elder Abuse Task Force, a special team overseen by the sheriff.
It's made up of social workers, investigators from the sheriff's department, prosecutors and judges. It's the only task force like it in Michigan.
"I just can't see treating my loved ones the way that some of these people are being treated," Stocchi said.
Stocchi arrested Flint resident Bryant Windom for embezzling $28,000 from his 77-year-old father who lives in a nursing home and suffers from dementia. Windom was granted guardianship of his dad in 2010.
Investigators say he blew through the money in one year, and he didn't bother paying one of his father's bills.
He's also in trouble for unpaid child support.
ABC12 asked what Windom was spending the money on. "He had frequented several hotels on the weekends. I believe it was somewhere between 6-8 weekends. I've also found records of him using it at outlet malls, there were numerous receipts of ATM withdrawals," Stocchi said.
Windom faces more than 10 years in prison for his crimes.
Also in Flint, 16-year old Jamal Tyler was in front of a judge, accused of bullying a 70-year-old man.
On several occasions, investigators say he and two of his friends forced the elderly man to withdraw money from the man's banking account.
"There was threats made to tie him up. There was threats that if he didn't go to the bank and withdraw money he would be put in the hospital. He feared for his life," Stocchi said.
Finally the man built enough courage to reach out to a bank teller who reported the crime. It was investigated by the Elder Abuse Task Force.
Tyler and his friends all face jail time.
Sergeant Stocchi says crimes like these are on the rise in Genesee County. "Fraud is a high percentage of our cases. I think it has a lot to do with the economy. But I'm glad I'm able to speak for these people, and try to help them out."
But money for the task force is declining. The special unit is funded by the county's senior millage, approved by voters in 2006.
The tax supports all senior services in Genesee County.
The problem is, property values and taxes have dropped drastically, and there is less money to go around.
Genesee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jamie Curtis says to make up the loss, commissioners cut several senior programs this fiscal year. "There is never going to be enough money," he said.
Services considered essential for senior citizens were sparred and all of the county's 16 senior centers maintained funding, but the task force took a hit.
"I really believe that this cut does not jeopardize in any shape or form the safety of the elders. Not all seniors are in this elder abuse situation, a lot of seniors need to have that recreation, that meal, and all those things that happen in those senior centers, or home delivery meals," Curtis said.
Nims argues the cuts are causing vulnerable adults to suffer. Already she has had to let go of a detective and a social worker as the caseloads continue to grow.
"Criminals are going to say 'oh, wow, now we can go back to getting away with it.' No! We can't let this go," Nims said. "We are educating the police, they are learning what to recognize, but they call us to go through the investigation to work with them on the investigation and to make sure we are getting the elderly protected."
She says her program can't sustain another cut. "We can't let this program go or we are going back to where we were before the millage, of finding people dead in their homes because nobody is available to protect them and keep them safe, and they deserve that good life. They deserve to be protected."
"It's sad, but don't play the fear factor out there with peoples lives, this is serious. They've done a great job. I truly believe in the program, but I don't think you should put fear in peoples' minds," Curtis said.
"It's not fear, it's reality the fear is happening, and that should scare everybody," Nims said.
Curtis says he believes in the program, but he says the county can't solve the problem alone.
Nims says she will continue to fight to keep the task force funded, and vulnerable adults protected.
But with limited resources, it's becoming more difficult to reach everyone in need.
Click for Updates, More Cases and Resources
Search LABELS for More Resources