SALT LAKE CITY -- A new state elder abuse study has found that Utah's seniors lose an average of $1 million weekly to thieves.
The study from the Utah Adult Protective Services found the majority of perpetrators are the children and grandchildren of the state's seniors, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
The report, which was based on 2009 data, found that thefts ranging from $35 to more than $745,000 resulted in overall costs of more than $51 million to seniors, taxpayers, businesses and the government.
It found some $30 million was taken from financial institutions, leaving Utah to pay an estimated $7.8 million to care for elders impoverished to the point that they turned to Medicaid for health care.
Financial theft is Utah's most common form of elder abuse, said Jilenne Gunther, the group's legal enforcement counsel, who reviewed 57 confirmed cases of elder financial exploitation for the report. She estimated that for every 10 actual incidents of abuse, only one was reported.
Perpetrators most often took credit cards, loot bank accounts or forge check, Gunther said. They also stole cars or medications, pawned wheelchairs, and often refused to pay rent to live in the elder person's home, Gunther's study found.
Advocates for the elderly have had difficulty getting law enforcement to pay attention to fraud within families. For years, it was considered akin to a family squabble and a problem best solved in the home.
"We couldn't get the attention because we're just social workers," said Peter Hebertson, Salt Lake County Aging Services outreach director.
Some costs of such abuse couldn't be quantified, including the loss of public housing, utility shutoffs for unpaid bills, reverse mortgages gone back, fraud-related financial liabilities and the consequences of allowing family members who are drug users or dealers moving into the elder person's home.
The study found only 11 percent of perpetrators were strangers.
It also found that only 2 percent of referral calls to Adult Protective Services came from the victims themselves. That suggested elders might be embarrassed about what their families are doing or, conversely, unaware they were being robbed.
"What you see happening," said Sgt. Troy Carr of the Unified Police Department's Special Victims Unit, "is all (the victims') assets are dwindling, and not slowly."
Utah law was amended in 2009 makes it mandatory to report suspicions of elder abuse to state authorities or police.
Gunther's report found that of allegations made to Adult Protective Services, 21 percent came from banks and credit unions.
But the report also found that even when allegations are reported, some cases were set aside as too complex or for being civil not criminal matters.
To help overcome the barriers that complicate prosecuting cases, a panel of social workers, police and prosecutors, along with Adult Protective Services Director Nan Mendenhall began meeting in June to evaluate cases for possible charges. The group also includes a psychologist, a representative of the Aging Services ombudsman's office.
The sessions build understanding of how to probe these crimes. The panel has screened 25 cases, and the first prosecution is scheduled for trial next month.