Elder abuse: A growing beat

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2010 - 10:41 PM

With a new elder-abuse unit, St. Paul police focus attention on a rapidly growing category of crime, cases which are often difficult to investigate.

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On his rounds, St. Paul police Sgt. Mike Wortman checked in with Peggy Jeffrey, 85, to make sure she had heat and enough food.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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It wasn't the ordinary crime investigation when Sgt. Mike Wortman reported to work early last week: A small, tidy room at a St. Paul care facility, an elderly woman lying in bed, a few questions about the way her daughter has been administering her medicine.

But then Wortman's new job isn't the ordinary crime beat: He's St. Paul's first full-time police investigator dedicated to Crimes Against the Elderly.

The unit was formed last month after years of an alarming increase in such crimes. Because perpetrators of elder abuse and similar crimes are prosecuted under general statutes that don't specify age, concrete statistics are hard to come by. But in St. Paul, police say they handled 77 cases of financial crimes against the elderly in 2008, up from 46 in 2006. All crimes against the elderly in St. Paul rose 14 percent from 2007 to 2008, said Assistant Police Chief Kenneth Reed.

"It's not very common, but it's growing," Reed said of police elder-abuse units. "We've seen elder abuse cases increasing rapidly each year."

Wortman's unit is one more example of the way Minnesota is changing under pressure from a demographic wave of gray. The state's elderly population will more than double by 2030, triggering changes in health care, transportation, housing, family life and even law enforcement.

Because crimes against the elderly have unusual and difficult aspects, police say a focused, specialized unit is the only way to protect seniors. Previously, Wortman worked such cases part-time, juggling them with his other duties as an arson investigator. Another investigator also helped out as she worked on unrelated cases.

"They're very time-consuming and long," Wortman said. "When that's your sole responsibility, it's a lot easier."

Many victims, for example, are at the mercy of their victimizers -- often family members -- or fear being placed in a nursing home if their victimizer is prosecuted, experts and police say.

In addition, the crimes are under-reported because of shame, isolation, and age-related mental and physical health limitations, said Sharon Merriman-Nai, co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse in Delaware.

"Elder abuse in general is a very under-researched field," Merriman-Nai said. "One of the challenges, first of all, is that very few cases relatively speaking come to light."

At any given time, there are an estimated 700,000 to 3.5 million victims of elder abuse nationwide, she said, or about 11 percent of the population over age 60.

The Minneapolis Police Department has an investigator who handles such cases, but not a full-fledged unit.

Under Reed's guidance, St. Paul police applied in 2008 and 2009 for federal grants to launch the unit with two full-time investigators, but were shot down. When Chief Thomas Smith was sworn in this June, he and Reed put their heads together to make the unit a reality with department funds despite a tough fiscal year.

"We were starting to get more and more complaints about elder abuse," Smith said. "Even on a national trend, this has become a real issue. It's very complicated to investigate these cases."

Challenges with investigations

On a recent fall morning, Wortman and an advocate with St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project visited suspected victims of elder abuse. Wortman questioned the victims, then left the room so the advocate could help form a safety plan to deal with potential victimizers.

A few hours into his day, Wortman had encountered the hallmark challenges of elder abuse investigations: Some victims had faulty memories, one woman's speech was nearly indecipherable due to her body's uncontrollable shaking, and one proud man was reluctant to accept the possibility that his wife was being bilked by family members.

In many cases, Wortman had to discern the truth between squabbling relatives and siblings, many of whom didn't live in Minnesota.

"You try to explain to them that it's nothing to be ashamed about," Wortman said of his approach with victims.

"Anybody can be the victim of crime. It's opened my eyes. Boy, it's opened my eyes."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

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  • About this series

    Monday October 25, 2010

    The number of Minnesotans over 65 will more than double in the next two decades, reaching nearly one-quarter of the state's population and bringing dramatic changes to schools, churches, sports...

  • Peggy Jeffrey

  • Sgt. Mike Wortman

  • Report elder abuse to St. Paul police at 651-291-1111, Ramsey County Adult Protection Services at 651-266-4012 or Saint Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Program at 651-645-2824.
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