Crime Watch

Feb 20, 2013 11:27 AM by Angela Douglas - Q2 News

Law enforcement, MT lawmakers to fight elder abuse

BILLINGS - Global stranger scams prey on older, trusting generations, and with Montana's elderly population expected to double between now and 2030, seniors in the Treasure State are at high risk.

"We will rank fifth in the nation in the next few years as far as having the highest percentage of elderly people," explained Big Sky Senior Services Executive Director Denise Armstrong. "We are just ripe for the scam artists."

Big Sky Senior Services responds to several reports of elder abuse every week in Yellowstone County. Recently a social worker with BSSS, Linda Henry, encountered a woman who fell victim to one of those scams.

"In the last 12 months, she had paid out on three different occasions, checks anywhere from $350 to about $500 to companies that had contacted her by phone, offering to help protect her identity," explained Henry.

Sadly, that scenario is far from uncommon. Of the 6,017 reports of elder abuse in Montana from 2011 to 2012, More than 20-percent were cases of exploitation.

"Unfortunately they're easy targets for financial exploitation and we see a lot of financial crimes when it comes to our seniors," explained Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. "Especially here in Yellowstone County."

It's not always strangers who target elders, in fact more of than not the abuser is a family member.

Financial exploitation isn't the only type of abuse. Thousands of elders in Montana also fall victim to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, along with various forms of neglect.

"Statistically they say only one in five cases are reported," Armstrong said.

That means between 2011 and 2012, instead of the reported 6,000 victims, an estimated 30,000 older Montanans were abused.

Despite those statistics, the amount of offenders prosecuted under the Montana Elder Abuse Prevention Act over the past two decades is minimal.

"Since the act was passed in 1992, there's only been 65 convictions in the entire state since 1992. That tells us that the Act is being underutilized," said Twito. "That doesn't mean that there's not crimes against seniors, it just means prosecutors aren't using it."

Because of that, county attorneys statewide are pushing for Senate Bill 134 this legislative session. The bill revises portions of the existing Act, making it easier for prosecutors to use it in elder abuse cases.

Senate Bill 134 would eliminate the need for prosecutors to prove the victim's capacity due to mental or physical impairment and clarifies that the definition of an older person is anyone over the age of 60.

The bill also creates a mandatory minimum prison sentence one year or a fine of $50,000, if a criminal financially exploits a senior and steals more than $25,000.

As lawmakers in Helena work to revise the laws, Big Sky Senior Services encourages the community to also take action.

"It can happen to anybody," said Henry. "Watch for things, listen for things that might be red flags."

"If you see any signs of physical bruising or emotional abuse, which is very prevalent too, financial exploitation, speak up," added Armstrong. "Sometimes we all have to be the voice for those seniors."


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