Talitha Nichols thought she was doing the right thing when she gave a woman in trouble a ride.
The woman tapped on Nichols’ window as she was pulling out of Carnival Foods, 1215 N. Memorial Drive, saying her car had broken down and needed a ride to Sixth Street where the car was sitting.
“While I was talking to her, she hollered at a guy and said, ‘She’ll take us,’” Nichols recalled.
Nichols said she doesn’t normally feel like a target, but she did that day when the man and woman ended up stealing her purse and $1,500 in cash, while she was performing an act of kindness. Nichols knew something was wrong when they arrived at Sixth Street and didn’t see a broken-down car. She said the woman must have taken the purse when she was talking to the man about a jack.
“What would they have done if I had seen her grab it and I grabbed it too?” Nichols asked, knowing the outcome would have been different or she could have been hurt.
Lancaster Police Detective Bryan Underwood said crimes against seniors happen all the time, and it can be more than phone scams and petty theft.
Underwood, who specializes in senior citizen investigations, said Nichols and other elderly people are targeted and victimized because they are “a very trusting group of people.”
“They come from a time when a handshake was an honorable binding contract, and (criminals) use that as a tool to deceive seniors,” Underwood said, whether it’s someone who says they will do work around the home that never gets done or other types of financial thefts and deception.
“We have seen an increase in senior crimes over the past several years,” Underwood said. “It’s probably always occurred, but we’re seeing more, and some of that may have to do with more reporting of crimes.”
Underwood works hand in hand with Dave Kessler from the Fairfield County Prosecutor’s Office and Job and Family Service’s Adult Protective Services to investigate and prosecute crimes against seniors.
Adult Protective Services specifically investigates allegations of abuse, neglect, self-neglect and financial exploitation.
According to APS Director Patty Ciripompa, 30 percent of their case load involves financial exploitation, and in 78 percent of those cases, a family member is the perpetrator.
Ciripompa said she can’t give an explanation of why family members would take advantage of elderly relatives, but substance abuse and addiction is often involved. A lot of times, she said, it’s their adult children or grandchildren who have either moved back into the home or are providing care for them.
Prosecuting crimes of theft and deception involving family members can be difficult, according to Underwood and Ciripompa, because they don’t want to get their loved ones in trouble.
“It’s very frustrating for us,” Ciripompa said. “Because if there’s not a cooperative victim willing to follow through even though we know darn well they did it ... we can’t go further in prosecuting them. It becomes a very complicated case.”
Before 2008, Ciripompa said reports of financial exploitation were low.
“I would say it was 8 percent or less of referrals before (2008),” she added.
Self-neglect always has been the highest reported allegation, which represents 44 percent of APS’s case load this year. She said self-neglect can be a number of different things, such as unsafe living conditions, a lack of food or heat in the home or needing additional at-home care.
Adult Protective Services has received 576 referrals this year from many different sources, some of which are self-referrals. Cirimpompa said if there is an issue of self-neglect in the home, APS can assist in finding any senior older than 60 some help, including an emergency response button.
The remaining cases APS responds to include abuse — which can be sexual, emotional or physical in nature — and “neglect by other.” According to APS, 16 percent of cases this year involved some kind of abuse.
“This year we have not had a case of sexual abuse, but we have in the past,” Ciripompa said. “That’s really an under-reported kind of thing, I think.”
Twenty percent of APS cases involve neglect by someone else, such as a health care worker or family member.
Ciripompa said family members should be involved in their elderly relative’s lives to notice any changes in their behavior because it can indicate there is a problem, especially in neglect and self-neglect cases.
“Pay attention and spend time with older adult relatives,” she said.
There are small ways for family members to assist seniors living alone. Noticing potential hazards around the home, she said, such as lightbulbs that need changed, phone access around the home and in the bedroom and moving anything obstructing walkways are all helpful.
“Those are little things I think relatives should be aware of,” she added.
To report an allegation or submit a referral for assistance, call 740-653-4060 and follow the prompts to reach the Adult Protective Services line.
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