Sacramento County to revive team to examine financial elder abuse

Sacramento County will reopen a financial fraud unit in January after reports of scams against the elderly have gone up dramatically since Adult Protective Services eliminated the unit several years ago.

From 2010 to 2013, annual reports of financial abuse rose from 873 to 1,330, a 52 percent increase.

The county disbanded the unit in 2009 because of recessionary budget problems, but supervisors this year responded to senior advocates and social service managers who urged them to address the rise in reports of financial crimes.

Adult Protective Services estimates the revived unit will have an annual cost of $660,000 for five investigators and a supervisor, and an unknown amount for administrative costs. Supervisors approved funding last month but delayed the start date until January because they said the county could not afford to fund a full year.

Supervisor Don Nottoli said he wants to increase funding for the unit if the county’s financial situation has improved when the board takes a final budget vote in September. “It’s a priority – a very high one,” he said.

Adult Protective Services investigates different types of abuse against the elderly and dependent adults, including assault, neglect and financial scams. Senior citizens are considered vulnerable because of decreased physical and mental abilities, coupled with the fact that they’re sometimes ripped off by people they want to trust, including their own family.

Experts have said that financial fraud against the elderly is rising nationally because of two factors: The aging of baby boomers has led to more potential victims, while the spread of Internet use has created more methods for fraud.

After the county eliminated the financial unit in 2009, social workers had to investigate every type of abuse.

The workload became increasingly difficult to manage as complaints went up, said Debra Morrow, division manager for Adult Protective Services. From 2010 to 2013, the number of all abuse reports went up 25 percent, up to just under 4,000.

“Financial abuse cases can be hugely complex,” she said. “You need people who have expertise and relationships with other experts.”

Adult Protective Services employees often rely on experts from the Sacramento Financial Abuse Specialist Team, a group of public- and private-sector employees who assist with investigations and providing services to victims.

In addition to Morrow and other county social service managers, the county’s Adult and Aging Commission told supervisors to reinstate the financial fraud unit. The commission is an advisory board appointed by supervisors.

Pam Miller, executive director of the Area 4 Agency on Aging, says supervisors made a smart decision to reopen the fraud unit. Before heading the nonprofit agency in the capital region, Miller was in charge of Adult Protective Services in Riverside County.

“The skill set to investigate fiduciary abuse is different than investigating other types of abuse,” she said. “You have to understand accounting systems; you have to trace through financial systems.”

In recent months, several people have described difficulties in trying to get Sacramento County Adult Protective Services to investigate allegations of financial fraud against their relatives. They said they came forward to tell their stories because of the problems they saw with the agency.

Gene Murphy said he repeatedly tried to get the county to investigate what happened to the estate of his father. Clyde Murphy rewrote his will to exclude his son and his wife and gave almost everything to a man who had recently begun to take care of him.

Several people complained about Julie Gutierrez, who was taking care of two men who gave her financial control of their homes. While Gutierrez said the deals ensured the men got needed care, relatives of the men accused her of stealing.

In each case, relatives of the alleged victims said they were unable to get the county to thoroughly investigate the cases. County officials say privacy laws prevent them from commenting on individual cases, but Adult Protective Services manager Morrow said all cases are properly reviewed.

The county resolved all but about 60 of the 1,330 reports of financial abuse received last year, and those were carried over to this year. Of the cases that received a final disposition, 30 percent were confirmed, with the rest considered unfounded or inconclusive. Adult Protective Services refers suspected crimes to law enforcement.