Ohio swindlers posing as caregivers are rarely jailed for crimes involving financial exploitation of the elderly, despite thousands of complaints statewide, a 5 On Your Side investigation found.
Financial crimes against the elderly have increased. One in 5 elderly people are victims to the tune of $3 billion a year, according to a report released last year by the National Conference of State Legislators.
County-operated offices of Adult Protective Services (APS) are charged with protecting the elderly. They are mandated to investigate complaints of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation within three days of a complaint. They then decide on whether they will refer a case to law enforcement, including county prosecutors and police.
But we found an alarmingly low number of financial exploitation cases are actually referred to law enforcement despite a growing number of complaints.
Complaints mount, few referred
No agency tracks the outcome of investigations by law enforcement, and data is not kept on how many cases actually result in convictions.
But Cuyahoga County data shows in 2017, there were 586 allegations of financial exploitation there. This increased to 810 allegations last year.
There could be even more incidents. A 2018 report by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed, “the overwhelming majority of elder financial exploitation go unreported to authorities.”
We reviewed statewide data filed with the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, collected from county-operated offices of APS, to find out how often complaints are made.
· In 2017, we found 2,955 complaints filed statewide alleging exploitation.
· Last year, that increased to 4,442 complaints. Only 124 complaints were referred to law enforcement for further investigation and prosecution.
One of those complaints involved 89-year-old Chuck Bauer.
Bauer, who passed away in January, was recently widowed and befriended by 37-year-old Latasha Wisniewski who moved in and promised to take care of him.
Instead, she’s charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from Bauer’s accounts and even adding her name to the deed to his home.
Wisniewski was indicted last November and has pleaded not guilty in the case that is scheduled for trial on March 25 in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.
But Bauer’s family insisted Cuyahoga County APS failed to investigate the case despite repeated calls for help, allowing Bauer’s finances to be wiped out.
Both Bauer’s daughter and granddaughter said they quickly grew suspicious of the 37-year-old’s interest and turned to protective services for help.
“We had to constantly contact them — they would never even contact us,” said Bauer’s granddaughter, Jennifer Bugnar.
Parma Heights Police launched its own investigation after the Bauer family reached out to an FBI agent for help.
“I am grateful to the detectives that stepped in but not so much to Adult Protective Services,” said Bauer’s daughter, Debbie Sheridan, “because I don’t think they did their due diligence on this.”
Cuyahoga County APS denied it failed to act quickly and said it is limited in what it can do when the victim fails to cooperate.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Brent Kirvel, who is prosecuting the case against Wisniewski, said that even though family members were suspicious, Bauer initially refused to cooperate, believing Wisniewski had his best interests at heart.
In addition, county APS said Bauer was “found to be competent,” and that finding makes it even more difficult to investigate and prosecute “because the elderly have their own rights” to self-determination.
Those limitations are echoed by the National Adult Protective Services Association in a 2018 report that found, “APS cannot take action on behalf of adults who have cognitive capacity to make informed decisions.”
Bauer’s family finally convinced him he was being swindled, but only after his life savings was drained.
A lack of funds
We found APS in Ohio is a fragmented system of underfunded and understaffed agencies — each operated independently across the state.
“You have to understand,” said Marlene Robinson-Statler, Executive Director of Cuyahoga County’s Adult Senior Services, “that we are limited based on funding and based on our state mandate of what we have to do.”
We also uncovered APS is not required to do criminal background checks.
This is critical because our investigation found Bauer’s caregiver had a long criminal history prior to becoming his caregiver, including two prison sentences. One stemmed from a theft from a disabled victim.
Cuyahoga County officials admitted they never checked.
Poor funding and inadequate training have long been a concern to the Ohio Coalition for Adult Protective Services (OCAPS), the state’s leading advocacy group for adult protection.
OCAPS Executive Director Susan Marshall said she is “absolutely convinced” cases of financial exploitation are going without investigation and prosecution across Ohio.
“Some of it might be a misunderstanding of just how much information law enforcement needs to progress in something,” Marshall said.
We found those investigating financial exploitation also have limited training and resources.
“Are they mandated to be licensed social workers? No, they are not,” admitted Robinson-Statler, agreeing that investigators “essentially take a couple of courses and go out.”
In addition, funding varies across the state and is barely enough to hire one staff member.
Last year, Cuyahoga County received only $30,000 in state funding. The remainder is up to county taxpayers through taxes raised by adult senior levies.
Each county across Ohio is on their own, and we found 14 counties that have no APS at all — leaving nearly half a million seniors in those counties unprotected from swindlers.
For example, Cuyahoga County has the highest number of seniors over age 60 with 290,762 residents. The county’s senior tax levy raises $16 million dollars that supports a wide range of programs offered by county APS, including $4 million designated for adult protection.
Overall, the county APS serves 30,722 clients in programs including protective services, homes support, community social programs and options for independent living.
But the funding levels vary dramatically from county to county, and according to a 2018 report by the Center for Community Solutions that analyzed senior tax levies, the inconsistencies result in “a system where your address alone can determine what level of services is available.”
Another report, issued by the same group which functions as a non-partisan think tank, found, 1 in 10 individuals ages 60 and older are living at home, and a “growing number of Ohioans who choose to remain in their homes may experience abuse, neglect or exploitation,” posing an increased risk of financial exploitation and abuse.
Policy Matters is another non-profit group stressing the need for increased funding for adult protection.
In a report they released last year, they found “the state underfunds protective services, leaving counties without enough to address growing needs.”
The Ohio Association of Area Agencies on Aging reports Ohio has the sixth largest overall population age 65 and over in the nation. The Association called on legislators to increase funding with a base allocation of at least $65,000 per county per year, with additional dollars allocated by formula.
There have been some recent efforts to strengthen adult protective services on a state level.
The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services is investing $1.3 million to develop an online referral system for reporting suspected elder abuse and develop online training for individuals required by law to report suspicions of elder abuse that recently expanded to include bank employees, financial planners and real estate agents.