Elder Law

5 red flags that a client might be a victim of elder abuse

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The increase in people who are 65 and older is accompanied by a growing shadow—the increase in occurrences of elder abuse, attorney Stephen Rosales says.

Elder abuse may be physical, psychological or sexual, and could include financial exploitation, neglect or abandonment, he explained. Its victims are not limited by gender, ethnicity, culture or socioeconomic status, and its perpetrators are often family, friends and caretakers.

Rosales, a past chair of the ABA’s Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and a principal at Rosales & Rosales in Belmont, Massachusetts, said this makes it vital that attorneys recognize the warning signs and protect clients who may not be able to protect themselves. He shared some of those warning signs during a webinar sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and Commission on Law and Aging last month.

“I’m just an attorney practicing in my suburban town,” he said. “I do not purposely seek these types of cases. Yet they find me, nonetheless.

“I expect they will find you, too. You need to be prepared.”

The ABA Journal spoke with elder law attorneys about how to identify some red flags or signs of elder abuse when they’re meeting with clients and how to respond to them.

1. The elder client is accompanied by someone who joins the conversation and talks more. “Heavy undue influence” exists in every case involving elder abuse, says Jennifer VanderVeen, the president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and an attorney at Tuesley Hall Konopa in South Bend, Indiana. “A family member brings in mom, sits in the conference and helps mom by talking to you about what mom wants,” she says. “Any time you see that, especially if there is more than one child in the family, but only one child bringing mom in, or a caregiver who is not family bringing mom in, that’s where you’re most likely to see a problem.” VanderVeen recommends that attorneys keep in mind who their client is during these situations.

2. The elder client seems nervous around or intimidated by the person who accompanies them. Deirdre Lok is wary when someone who comes in with an older adult protests confidential conversations. Lok, the assistant director and general counsel for the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Justice in Riverdale, New York, observes whether the client seems anxious or afraid of that person, avoids eye contact or trembles. She also notes if the client appears isolated or estranged from everyone except for that person. “Then, let’s say you have the private conversation, and the client doesn’t really disclose anything,” says Lok, also the chair of the Senior Lawyers Division’s Elder Abuse Prevention Committee. “Salient advice is to always say, ‘Look at any point, you can have a confidential conversation with me.’ So you’re offering them the opportunity in the future to come back to you.”

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3. The reason for the elder client’s visit raises questions. If an older adult meets with an attorney to change his or her will so that it benefits a new caregiver, friend or neighbor, that immediately sparks concern, says Michael Delaney, a member of the National Elder Law Foundation board of directors and a senior partner at Delaney Delaney & Voorn in Chicago. In that situation, attorneys need to ask questions, especially if they know the client has children or other family members. “Tell me about your kids, why don’t you want to leave anything to them?” he says. “If you have those conversations, sometimes you’ll get answers that make sense, but a red flag for elder abuse is if they don’t quite understand why they want to disinherit their kids in favor of their neighbor.”

4. The elder client has visible injuries or other oddities in his or her appearance. Lok looks for bruises, particularly ones that look like handprints, and burn marks on her elder clients. She acknowledges that many attorneys feel uncomfortable asking questions about these types of injuries, but she stresses the importance. “More importantly, you need to listen to the answers,” Lok says. “I think attorneys have a hard time wanting to go out of their comfort zone, but what I’m suggesting is that it’s a public health crisis.” Lok also pays attention to whether her clients bathed recently, dressed appropriately and use necessary assistive devices, such as a walker or hearing aids. “Those things that go to the physical well-being and health of your client are important to notice, because they are clues to how well they’re A, able to take care of themselves or B, being cared for by another,” she says. Lok recommends that attorneys who suspect elder abuse consult their own state mandatory reporting requirements, since they differ.

5. A family member expresses concerns about the elder client. Elder abuse reporting is on the upswing, says Shirley Berger Whitenack, who hears often from adult children who are worried about their parents. “I get lots of calls about money missing from mom or dad’s account or so and so transferred an asset and didn’t know what they were doing,” says Whitenack, the co-chair of the Elder and Special Needs Law Practice Group at Schenck Price Smith & King in Florham Park, New Jersey. “Or I went to visit my mother and she was sleeping in a bed that had no sheets, and it was 100 degrees in the room. That’s not uncommon.” Whitenack often directs concerned family members to contact Adult Protective Services. She adds that attorneys could also respond by asking the court to appoint a guardian or conservator to make decisions about an older adult’s interests and care.

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