Are you visiting elderly parents or relatives this holiday season? It's a good time to look for signs of elder abuse, which can take subtle forms, such as financial abuse or neglect.
A state Elder Law Task Force issued a November 2014 report with recommendations that aim to better protect older residents through Pennsylvania courts in cases involving abuse, neglect, guardianship, and conservatorship.
One task-force idea now reaching the courts is the "bench card," which lays out for judges the signs of possible elder abuse. The task force is distributing it to judges in family, criminal, civil (municipal and county), and Orphans' Courts, and to all district justices in fall/winter continuing-
"We distributed the bench cards . . . at the State Trial Judges Conference in Hershey in July," says Karen Buck, executive director of the SeniorLAW Center in Center City, "and we got very good feedback. This ensures judges in all divisions have critical information to how elder abuse affects all areas of the law."
Superior Court Judge Paula Francisco Ott serves as liaison to the executive and legislative branches. In Pennsylvania, Ott says, Orphans' Court is often where elder abuse comes to light.
"We sometimes refer to Orphans' Court as the new Family Court. We see family disputes about who's going to handle the elderly parents' money, who's taking care of them. We're seeing the financial abuse comes a lot through misuse of power of attorney," Ott says.
"There's very little court oversight with power of attorney," she says. "So cases we see coming in for guardianship start with family or the Office of Aging. They often come in with a dispute about powers of attorney."
Sometimes, an older person has no family, siblings or children. In one real-life case, a neighbor became the de facto guardian, Ott said.
Anyone who suspects that an older person is being abused should contact the local county Office of Aging, she said: "The call is always confidential."
"Similar to child-abuse cases, they investigate. In the case I just mentioned, the elderly woman had a lawyer who had drawn up the power of attorney for the neighbor. To be careful, I appointed an independent person to be the guardian of her money and left the neighbor to make day-to-day medical and other decisions," Ott said.
Last year, an East Frankford woman was found starving, covered in filth, and suffering from maggot-infested sores. Prane Paciunas, 89, died Nov. 15, about a week after she was found in her living room, wrapped in a quilt on a bed covered with trash bags.
Jean Dombrowski, 48, who had stepped in as Paciunas' caregiver, has been charged with murder. Over a six-year period, authorities say, she moved in with the elderly woman and exercised her power of attorney, renting rooms in Paciunas' house and blocking access to investigators until police showed up.
Ott says Pennsylvania's court system is seeing a tremendous increase in elder-abuse cases. She presided over one that involved a married couple.
"He'd pull the chair out from under her, drive away from her with the car. At first, the family thought he was confused. But he was abusive and didn't like having to take care of her. The children brought in a request to protect her from abuse.
"Anecdotally, judges across the state are spending a lot more time doing guardianship cases than they were five years ago," Ott says, although she did not have specific figures.
The state's Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Prevention Program educates professionals such as lawyers and financial planners on how to recognize when older clients are vulnerable to or victims of financial abuse, particularly those with mild cognitive impairment.
For information, call the Investor Education and Consumer Outreach Office, Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities, at 1-800-722-2657, or visit www.dobs.pa.gov and click on "Consumers," then "Community Outreach."