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Washington state takes new steps to stem epidemic of elder abuse

A new law just passed this week by the Washington state legislature is aiming to curb crime against what some call the ever-growing ranks of the aging known as the "Silver Tsunami." (AP)

It’s a crime wave we hear little about — elder abuse.

Most notably, scammers taking advantage of people in their care, often stealing their life savings, other times physically abusing them.

But a new law just passed this week by the Washington state legislature is aiming to curb crime against what some call the ever-growing ranks of the aging known as the “Silver Tsunami.”

Adult Protective Services received more than 7,800 complaints of financial exploitation, and more than 5,400 neglect complaints in 2015 alone, according to Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

That’s why he championed the new law that creates a new category of crime for stealing from vulnerable adults, stiffening penalties and lengthening the statute of limitations from three to six years so prosecutors have more time to bring a case to court.

“Often you don’t even realize your parent has been scammed until well after that period of time has gone by. So our proposal allows for a six-year statute of limitations, creates a separate crime and allows us to prosecute these cases in a much more efficient manner,” Ferguson said.

That’s welcome news to elder advocates like Kirkland attorney Rick Gregorek, an estate and elder law specialist, and host of ‘Your Partner in Law’ on KIRO Radio Sundays at 8 a.m.

He sees the effects every day in his practice. Most troubling, the vast majority of scammers are family members.

“This isn’t the province of any particular demographic group. From people stealing grandma’s $800 social security check – her entire net worth, if you will – all the way up to people stealing millions of dollars. So no one is immune,” Gregorek said.

Gregorek says it’s most disturbing when a supposed loved one is doing the abusing, especially under the guise of taking care of them.

The abuse can include forcing vulnerable adults to change wills, powers of attorney and bank accounts in favor of exploiters.

The stories can be horrifying. Most of us remember the ugly battle over legendary DJ Kasey Kasem between his daughter and wife playing out in Kitsap County.

And then there was the Redmond woman who built cages around her parents to keep them from getting out of bed for years, all while draining their bank accounts.

“Her dad was blind, had severe dementia. Her mother had severe dementia. They were not in reality at all,” Gregorek recounted.

“They deserved to be in a protected environment, probably assisted living of some sort where they’d get the care they needed. They had the money but the daughter in charge of their money didn’t want to spend it because that would have reduced her inheritance. So two-by-fours and chicken wire and you build a cage around them. They were in that cage for six years.”

There are often warning signs such as increased isolation – a caregiver claiming the person doesn’t want to see friends or family. Or money starts draining from bank accounts.

So how can you protect yourself or your loved one? Gregorek says planning is the key. It starts with an elder law and estate planning attorney who can put a number of safeguards in place.

They can include alerts for bankers whenever there’s a significant financial or other change

And you can get a trustee or co-agent – someone outside the family who acts as your agent or consultant so one person doesn’t have total control of all your affairs.

“So if you have a professional fiduciary that’s maybe an attorney or a trust company, to get them to exploit that senior with a family member, the odds are that’s not going to happen,” Gregorek said.

But Gregorek says the biggest thing is to plan well ahead. And he says estate planning isn’t a one-time deal – you have to address changes such as in-fighting in the family.

But there’s hope the new law passed this week will help prevent at least some of the abuses going on.

“We can prosecute more cases and more successfully. And number two, once you do that you’re sending a message to individuals who may want to seek out and try to exploit vulnerable seniors that they will be prosecuted and they’ll face tougher sentences if convicted,” Ferguson said.

The measure passed overwhelmingly by both the House and Senate now goes to Governor Inslee for his signature.

About the Author

Josh Kerns

Josh Kerns is an award winning reporter on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. He covers everything from May Day riots in Seattle to the latest Boeing news. Email Josh at jkerns@kiroradio.com

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