Clayton Schunk of Hamburg pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $250,000 from his 85-year-old mother. Schunk was sentenced to restitution and five years probation of which the first four months of weekends will be spent in jail.
Our nation's oldest citizens are increasingly being preyed upon, most often by people they know and trust, and it's a growing problem that is costing aging Americans billions of dollars each year.
Elder abuse affects as many as 2 million seniors every year in the U.S., and experts estimate that number will continue to grow as the population ages.
Unfortunately, it's always been a guessing game as to just how many suffer from elder abuse because it is severely under-reported. Despite the accessibility of Adult Protective Services nationwide, an overwhelming number of cases go undetected and untreated each year.
In Erie County, there are more than 1,500 cases of elder abuse reported each year. But many more are never reported.
"I think elder abuse, financial abuse, happens more often than we realize," said Erie County Legislator Lynne Dixon.
Only one in 24 victims report elder abuse to police or a social service agency. Financial exploitation is even worse, with only one in 44 cases of financial abuse reported.
"I don't only view this as financial exploitation, I view it as financial rape," said Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita. "We will see some of the same dynamics in these cases as we see with sexual assaults."
According to Sedita, the victims often withdraw, blame themselves and are reluctant to press charges. The National Center on Elder Abuse says that's because approximately 90 percent of abusers are family members.
"Everybody knows somebody who's been victimized," said State Senator Patrick Gallivan. "[But] they may not know it because it most often comes at the hands of someone they love and somebody they trust."
Late last year, Jimmy Grimes, III, got a phone call from his father's friend.
"He was concerned about my father," Jimmy said. "Where's all his money going? He was wondering why he wasn't looking good."
It turns out, 80-year-old Jimmy, Jr., was borrowing large sums of money from his friends because his pension and social security was disappearing, and his bills weren't getting paid. Going through bank statements, Jimmy Jr.'s son and daughter-in-law, Covina, found one ATM withdrawal after another.
"At that point when we sat down to talk to him, he said [his daughter] had been taking his money," Covina said.
Jimmy and Covina immediately sought power of attorney and hired a detective from the Cheektowaga Police Department and a lawyer from Legal Services for the Elderly. Together, they calculated Jimmy Jr.'s daughter had stolen $30,000 in cash in addition to selling his car and cashing out his life insurance policy.
But Jimmy Jr. dropped the charges.
"I didn't want to see her in jail," he said. "She started crying to me [that] she was going to get locked up."
Unfortunately, Jimmy Jr.'s situation is not uncommon.
"Parents come to a point where they're trusting their own children to protect them and do what's right for them," Dixon said. "To break that trust, there should be penalties and they should be severe."
But so far, the consequences for committing financial elder abuse seem slim.
In May, Sandra Gilliam of Buffalo admitted to stealing more than $70,000 from her ailing 84-year-old father. She faced up to four years in prison, but was sentenced to five years probation in July. She also agreed to make $500 monthly payments until the stolen money was returned.
Then in June, three more cases of financial elder abuse went to court. In just one week, Clayton Schunk of Hamburg pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $250,000 from his 85-year-old mother, Donald Gubbins of North Tonawanda admitted to stealing more than $215,000 from his 87-year-old aunt, and Kimberly Olive of Buffalo said she stole from three people she was caring for as a home healthcare aide. Each of the defendants faced more than a decade in prison. Both Olive and Schunk have since been sentenced to five years probation and restitution. In addition, Schunk will spend the first four months of weekends of his probation in the Erie County Correctional Facility.
Still, the opportunity for recovery is pretty low.
"If someone's in their 90s and someone stole $50,000 from them and they're paying it back at a rate of $500 a month, the person in their 90s is not going to see that money returned," said Sarah Duval, an attorney for Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled and Disadvantaged of Western New York.
Like in the case of 90-year-old Matthew Pollack, whose neighbor Kenneth Heitzenrater swindled him out of a small fortune. In 2012, Heitzenrater pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $600,000 from Pollack through a misuse of a power of attorney. He could have received as long as four years in prison, but was sentenced to probation in January 2013 so he could repay his victim. But one month later, Pollack passed away.
That's why legislators are fighting to make it easier to prosecute people who swindle the elderly.
"They're hands were tied in some cases," Gallivan said. "They didn't have the tools and they felt that certain changes in the law could make it better or easier for them to prosecute and less likely for a perpetrator to get away with this."
Another issue with the numbers in New York is the lack of a mandated reporting system. While all 50 states have Adult Protective Services agencies in place to investigate reports, New York is one of only four states that has no mandatory reporting requirement.
This makes it more difficult to gather the numbers throughout the state. Not only is there no central statewide database for elder abuse cases in New York, but more cases can slip through the cracks without required reporting.
In fact, many people don't seem to realize elder abuse is a problem.
"The shock on people's faces when we tell them that it exists… that shock on people's faces is all I need to see to know that it's not getting the attention that it needs," Duval said.
Which is why legislators and attorneys give presentations to educate people in the community.
"It is a growing problem and I think that it's always been out there, but in the past nobody said anything," Dixon said. "The reason we are doing elder abuse forums primarily is to kind of get the word out to senior citizens in our community, to the community at large, that there are potential issues out there and what you need to look for and how you can maybe help your neighbor or somebody down the street or a friend or a family member that might be suffering some sort of abuse, whether it's physical, emotional or financial."
And attorneys remind senior citizens that there are legal tools out there to protect them. Family court is often a popular alternative to criminal court where cases are typically harder to prove. In December 2013, three financial crimes were added to the family offense petition—grand larceny in the third or fourth degree, identity theft and coercion. This allows seniors to get an order of protection or restraining order against financial abuse before it turns physical.
Still, the goal is to protect seniors before any abuse happens.
"The best way to stop elder abuse is to prevent it," Duval said.
Sarah Duval, an attorney for Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled and Disadvantaged of WNY, speaks about the legal aspects of elder abuse and some actions victims can take to protect themselves.