Let’s Raise Awareness About Elder Abuse!

elder abuse awareness

Moonlight Near Westcliffe

For this last post of June, I wanted to circle back on the importance of raising awareness of elder abuse.  You can read the Presidential Proclamation on June 15, 2016, for World Elder Abuse Awareness Day right here and if you’re curious about the language of the Elder Justice Act, passed as part of the Affordable Care Act (as Title VI subtitle H, §§6701 et seq.), read this link.

In Colorado, as in nearly all other states, adult protection units are responsible for the reporting and investigation (along with law enforcement agencies) of elder abuse.  The Elder Justice Act is federal legislation which requires the U.S Department of Health and Human Services “to oversee the development and management of federal resources for protecting out seniors from elder abuse.”  Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice is charged with taking action to prevent elder abuse.

The effective coordination of these county, state and federal efforts is of course a work in progress.  What we do know about raising awareness of elder abuse and exploitation is that it will lead to more reporting of such abuse.  Here is a link to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee which links the raised awareness of such abuse to a dramatic increase in reports to local law enforcement.   This is important to bear in mind as the baby boomers begin to become a greater proportion of the cohort affected by elder abuse and exploitation.  In my practice, I have unfortunately become familiar with national and international internet scams which relieve elders of their hard-earned retirement money.  This is a particular area in which the federal government might play a unique role as so much of our law of the internet is based in federal law.

Another tragic side effect of the victimization of elders, besides the shame, victimization and impoverishment which results from financial exploitation is that these elders, along with elder victims of all types of elder abuse – including physical and sexual abuse – are likely to die much sooner than their peers who were not victimized.  But many pieces of this puzzle remain unidentified due to the lack of long term studies which collect valuable statistics about elder abuse of various types! This is of course another aspect of the importance of raising awareness.  Because so much of elder abuse still remains unreported, this is a major quality of life challenge not just for elders and their loved ones and community, but also for those of us of “a certain age” who might be looking forward to a safe and meaningful elderhood.  How can we make things better for elders at risk now and in the future?

What is elder abuse and who are its primary victims of such elder abuse? By the numbers, they are largely women and the “old” of the elder population – meaning folks over 80.  Sadly, the vast majority of the abusers are family members of the elder or trusted friends or advisors.  Because most elders live in the community – not in institutions – this is a particular challenge for all of us who are community members to become familiar with the signs so that we can report concerns about safety, suspicious behaviors and the like to local law enforcement.

First – what are the kinds of elder abuse that we’re talking about? Here is a helpful listing from the U.S. government’s Administration on Aging website, which also has many helpful resources:

  • Physical Abuse—inflicting physical pain or injury on a senior, e.g. slapping, bruising, or restraining by physical or chemical means.
  • Sexual Abuse—non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Neglect—the failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care, or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Exploitation—the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property, or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit.
  • Emotional Abuse—inflicting mental pain, anguish, or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts, e.g. humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.
  • Abandonment—desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
  • Self-neglect—characterized as the failure of a person to perform essential, self-care tasks and that such failure threatens his/her own health or safety.

 

And what about the warning signs of elder abuse which we can be more aware of?

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
  • Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
  • Behavior such as belittling, threats, and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
  • Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs.
  • Changes in the elder’s personality or behavior, especially if the elder becomes withdrawn or despondent, questions to her or him can be very important in identifying a situation which may be the cause of the elder’s silent suffering.

Lastly, here is another helpful self-help resource specifically for Colorado residents – from Colorado Legal Services.  That’s all for now – but don’t forget . . . . Denver’s Senior law Day is coming up on Friday July 29, 2016 and will be held at the Denver Police Protective Association’s Event Center.  More details later.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2016   www.DenverElderLaw.org

New Case Law Shows Teeth in Uniform Power of Attorney Act for Breach of Agent’s Duties

 

Irish Arches

In an opinion published 11/7/13, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled on substantial questions relating to the Uniform Power of Attorney Act (UPOA) as it relates to an agent’s duties and the types of activities which a power of attorney (POA) authorizes.  In People v. Stell, 2013CA0492,   the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with directions a case involving a criminal indictment of an agent who was acting under a POA.  This decision has wide and beneficial implications for principals who have executed  POAs and whose agent are acting in their own self-interests,  are converting their principal’s assets for the agent’s use or otherwise stealing from them.  Here’s a sketch of the factual background of the case. Thanks to Vicki H. for sharing this case with me!

The principal (referred to as “victim” in the opinion) executed a POA in 2009 in Virginia.  Both Virginia and Colorado have adopted the UPOA so, even though the statutory cites vary, the law is substantially the same.  In the POA, the Principal named as agent his son, the defendant Stell.  While acting as agent under the POA, Stell wasted no time liquidating all of principal’s bank accounts, CDs, a 401K account, a piece of real property and the timber sold from that land – to the tune of $453,928.81.  The following year, Stell proposed that the principal place other assets into a trust so they would be protected from creditors.  The trust document that principal signed at his agent Stell’s direction did not name the principal as beneficiary of such trust and so, principal was permanently deprived of the use and benefit of that property.  In October 2010, principal terminated the POA and asked the Denver District Attorney’s office to investigate.  As a result of such investigation a nine-count indictment was drawn, eight counts for theft and one count of conspiracy.  The appeal of the trial court’s ruling is based on the dismissal of counts 1, 2, 4 and part of 3 – relating to the authority of the agent Stell to transfer principal’s property as agent under the POA.  In its dismissal of those counts, the trial court ruled that because the agent Stell had authority under the POA to do anything with the principal’s property that principal could do with it, that Stell couldn’t commit theft against his principal.  The Court of Appeals soundly rejected this line of thinking.

The POA is a document that confers broad powers, but it is no license to steal.  In this criminal case, the Court of Appeals examined carefully the fiduciary duty owed by an agent to his principal under the UPOA.  Citing a Virginia Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals stated that “powers of attorney are strictly construed.”  (Opin. at para. 17) Going further, the court ruled that the expansive language in a POA should be interpreted narrowly and should be construed in light of the surrounding circumstances.  It soundly rejected the argument that, because a POA typically gives a broad grant of authority, it could somehow give an agent the authority to misbehave, commit theft and otherwise breach fiduciary duties owed as a consequence of the nature of the principal-agent relationship.

The fact that a POA contains a broad grant of agent authority does not mean that an agent is nonetheless duty-bound (as in an agent’s fiduciary duty, as described in the UPOA) to exercise authority in acting as agent in the utmost good faith, loyalty, and other duties owed.  The Court of Appeals rejected that trial court’s reasoning that a broad grant of authority to the agent implied that an agent’s actions that were in violation of the fiduciary duties owed were somehow still “authorized” because agent was acting under a POA.  In paragraph 21 of the decision, the Court of Appeals identified the factual questions appropriate for a jury’s determination of whether an agent under a POA was acting within or outside of his or her scope of authority as determined by agent’s fiduciary duties.  They included the following questions of whether agent acted: (1) in accordance with principal’s reasonable expectations and consistently with the principal’s interests and intent; (2) in good faith; (3) loyally for the principal’s benefit; and (4) with the care, competence and diligence ordinarily exercised by agents in similar circumstances.  In reversing and remanding the counts of the indictment dismissed by the trial court, the Court of Appeals gives an indication that the days of the POA as a “license to steal” for noncriminal law purposes are over.  This is an important development for Colorado – for both the new mandatory reporting of financial exploitation law(read my post about that law here ) as well as the ability of exploited elders and other at-risk persons to recover funds  improperly taken from them by an agent under  a POA.  It gives more protection for principals who have been taken advantage of by their agents to establish that the agent’s conduct was improper and to strengthen the ability to recover such funds that were improperly used or converted for the agent’s exclusive benefit.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org