A coordinated effort involving a range of agencies aims to ward off financial exploitation and neglect or abuse, particularly of the elderly.
When Tony Palumbo became Anoka County attorney last year, he believed the office should put a stronger emphasis on the investigation and prosecution of crimes against vulnerable adults, particularly the elderly.
He called a meeting of representatives from public health, adult protection, human and mediation services and a women's shelter, as well as the CEO of a long-established senior communities business. They quickly learned that the coordinated effort increased their awareness of the problems facing vulnerable adults and eliminated duplicate services, leading to greater efficiency in resolving potentially life-changing situations.
Palumbo also hired an experienced attorney, Jennifer Hasbargen, in November to exclusively handle vulnerable adult cases involving financial exploitation, neglect or physical and verbal abuse. Hasbargen said she has seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases since the program began, and she expects charges to be filed in several cases very soon.
"The time had come for such an initiative," said Palumbo. "People were clamoring to get on board."
The initiative is called SAFE, short for Stop Abuse and Financial Exploitation. Palumbo said many counties have made such cases a priority, but Anoka County may be the only one in Minnesota that brings all the partners to the table. They have also created a pamphlet to help people notice warning signs of abuse and a list of telephone numbers to call for advice or service referrals.
A relative taking advantage of a parent's financial situation was a common issue that Palumbo had prosecuted before he became county attorney. In one week, he dealt with three cases with nearly the same scenario: a son lost his job, moved in with his mother and got control of the checkbook and abused it, and another sibling turned him in to police.
"Sometimes that person believes they deserve the money because they have been taking care of the parent," Palumbo said. "Parents may also have more money saved than in past generations."
These cases take extensive investigation because they involve financial records and the tricky dynamics of family relationships, said Palumbo. That is why he hired Hasbargen, the former Koochiching County Attorney who most recently worked financial abuse and neglect cases for the state Attorney General's office.
Historically, there have been public efforts to bring awareness to specific crimes, such as drunken driving, domestic abuse and sexual assault of children, she said. Now, abuse against vulnerable adults is starting to get attention, she said. The Legislature recently passed a bill making it a felony for a caregiver or provider to severely neglect or abuse a vulnerable adult or the elderly.
An important piece of the SAFE initiative is "safe haven" services provided by Crest View Senior Communities, which has been based in Anoka County for 60 years. A vulnerable adult feeling unsafe or a friend or relative needing to report abuse can contact Crest View directly. The county also may refer that person to the facilities. Crest View offers senior housing, assisting living and skilled nurse care that may provide a temporary or permanent solution.
"Our role is to be a true safe haven," said Shirley Barnes, CEO of Crest View. "The person may have gone through adult protection, been in the hospital or had a protection order against their abuser."
Her employees are trained to recognize signs of abuse and to handle a variety of situations. In the past, Barnes would hear most about residents in institutions being abused. Recent cases involve people hurt in their own homes.
Barnes said Anoka County has always provided strong services to help vulnerable adults, but the SAFE initiative organizes all the players with the same priorities and goals.
"Everybody has a piece of the puzzle," she said. "In the end, the puzzle gets put together and the person who was hurt gets to feel safe."
David Chanen • 612-673-4465