Preventing elder abuse: A plea for justice

By Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller

Barbara’s voice deserves to be heard by every Iowan who cares about protecting seniors.

Barbara was a low-income, older Iowan who was left without family after her husband’s passing. She was incapable of managing her finances because of an intellectual disability. She turned to a younger former co-worker, Caroline, for help. Caroline agreed to be Barbara’s representative payee and manage her meager Supplemental Security Income benefits. (Their names have been changed to protect Barbara’s privacy.) Barbara’s letter explains:

“While my basic bills were paid by Caroline during her time as my payee, I was only given $50 per month to cover the rest of my expenses. I was expected to pay for gas, food, household items, clothing, personal hygiene items, pet expenses and all other expenses with this $50. I also had to rely on only $61 per month in food stamps for groceries, and eventually had to use a fund from a local grocery store. I could never buy the types of food I wanted. … I had to go to the food bank many times. Accepting these handouts from the community to survive made me feel embarrassed and ashamed.

“I could not afford essentials, such as paper towels, cleaning supplies, clothes, cat litter, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet paper. I often had to cut up cloth sheets and T-shirts to clean myself after using the bathroom. I would make cat litter out of things such as flour, corn meal and sand. I would have to sew and repair my underwear and socks due to not being able to afford new ones. This lack of money left me unable to take part in any leisure activities such as going to movies or shopping. I often felt controlled by Caroline because she was always telling me I could not afford certain things, so this is how I had to live my life. I have lived in a garage apartment with poor heating and cooling because I felt I could not afford a better place. Living this way made me feel worthless and judged when I had to put items back because I couldn’t afford them, and when I had to wear clothes I bought second-hand or found in a dumpster.

“My low fixed income made me unable to dig myself out of my bills. I had to pay for a necessary dental bill with a credit card and payment plan, which includes a $30 monthly finance fee. Because of this it is nearly impossible for me to ever get the principal balance paid down. Once, I had to sell jewelry because my car needed repaired and Caroline would not allow me the money needed for it. I was unable to drive my vehicle and had to rely on others for transportation. … I again was ashamed to have to get help from other people because of this.”

Caroline wasn’t just controlling Barbara’s spending. Elder advocates learned of Barbara’s story and went to police. Caroline was caught at a local supermarket buying filet mignon, beer and other items using the money that Barbara relied upon to survive.

“When I found out what happened to me, I felt anger, resentment, manipulated, victimized, helpless and stupid. I lived in fear and felt vulnerable after the exploitation was discovered, because I was not sure whether Caroline was going to pay my bills while I waited two months to get a new payee. I worried I would be evicted or left without power. … I was at Caroline’s mercy for weeks,” Barbara wrote. “This was very traumatizing. It increased my anxiety, feelings that others can’t be trusted, and made it hard for me to sleep at night.”

Caroline was charged with a serious misdemeanor for stealing Barbara’s money. With help from advocates, Barbara wrote this letter to a prosecutor to explain how Caroline’s exploitation harmed her.

“Since discovering the extent of the exploitation by Caroline, I have spent lots of hours finding a new payee, changing banks, collecting bank statements. … This case preoccupies me at all waking hours.

“I also wonder how much else went on that I did not realize over the years when Caroline was my payee. I spend hours looking at old financial documents and finding checks written to Caroline from my late husband’s accounts. I wonder if Caroline took my late husband’s life insurance money many years ago, which I desperately needed.

“Even “small” amounts that Caroline might have taken from me would have made a big, positive impact on my hard life of poverty. I feel like that I can’t trust or be close to anyone anymore, and now I avoid people.”

Caroline pleaded guilty and the judge ordered her to spend 30 days in jail. Barbara, however, continues to deal with the repercussions long after the crime.

The case became one of the relatively rare elder financial exploitation prosecutions in Iowa. Cases involving thieves who manage an older victim’s finances often present complexities not reflected in current criminal law. Low-income victims who cannot afford private attorneys often must rely upon law enforcement and non-profits to get the assistance they desperately need.

The Iowa Attorney General’s office shares Barbara’s story to highlight the need to make elder abuse an explicit crime in Iowa so county attorneys have the tools they need to prosecute it. Abuse — whether it’s physical, emotional or financial — remains under-reported and often unpunished. Most other states have specific elder-abuse laws, and the lack of one in Iowa has made it more difficult for law enforcement to pursue cases.

Two bills in the Iowa Legislature — SSB1073 and HSB70 — would establish the crimes of older individual assault and financial exploitation of an older individual (defined as age 60 or older). The bills would enhance the penalty for theft against an older Iowan and create a range of criminal penalties depending on the circumstances, harm and the severity of the crimes. It would also provide more guidance for prosecutors in pursuing elder abuse cases.

Barbara’s letter ends with this plea:

“I am asking you to give me justice.”