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Q&A with Debra Morrow, who leads efforts to fight scams against Sacramento County seniors

Debra Morrow, center, a 35-year veteran of county social services who now manages Senior and Adult Services, is consolidating a range of services in her division, including guardianship, conservatorship and the county’s volunteer programs for older adults.
Debra Morrow, center, a 35-year veteran of county social services who now manages Senior and Adult Services, is consolidating a range of services in her division, including guardianship, conservatorship and the county’s volunteer programs for older adults. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

With a rapidly aging population in Sacramento County, elder abuse is on the rise: Complaints to the county’s Adult Protective Services department soared by 39 percent from 2010 to 2013, and complaints of financial fraud against seniors grew 25 percent during the same time period. Yet in the heart of the tough recession years – just as the baby boom began hitting age 65 – the county stripped funding from the APS team that specialized in investigating abuse and fraud.

Now funding has been restored, with the senior financial fraud unit set to reopen in January with five additional investigators and a supervisor. And Debra Morrow, the 35-year veteran of county social services who now manages Senior and Adult Services, is consolidating a range of services in her division, including guardianship, conservatorship and the county’s volunteer programs for older adults.

What kind of scams should seniors watch out for?

The range of possible perpetrators is vast now, because of the technology. There are lottery scams on the phone and Internet scams. There are a vast number of ways to commit the financial abuse of seniors. But by and large, we look at someone who has a close relationship with the older adult.

Usually, it’s a person in a position of trust. Unfortunately, it’s usually a family member or a close friend. There’s a trusting relationship.

It can be gaining the trust of somebody who’s making end-of-life decisions about what to do with their finances. Next thing you know, the house has been signed over, and they have control of the finances.

But aren’t there many situations where a new estate plan doesn’t indicate fraud? Aren’t seniors allowed to change their minds about their money?

That’s one of the difficulties for families, and it’s not unusual. The adult children come visit for Christmas and find out that the next-door neighbor has been given control of the savings account. The senior says the neighbor has been helpful every day. Families don’t understand why decisions like that are made, so we go assess the situation.

The question concerns the senior’s mental acuity. Often, they’re very mentally clear. They’ve just changed their mind.

What other kinds of elder abuse does APS investigate?

The largest number of our calls concern elderly self-negect. The individual himself isn’t coping. Their health may be in danger. Their house is in disrepair. They’re hoarding, or they have a medical issue that’s untreated. Our social workers go out and assist them.

Neglect by others is the next category. Often, we find that family members and care providers are doing the best they can but don’t necessarily have the information or support to provide care. Seniors have medical issues, things that in younger people wouldn’t result in death, like urinary tract infections and pneumonia.

And then there are the physical abuse cases, with situations like tying older adults to chairs or striking them.

Why did the county’s guardianship and conservatorship services recently return to Senior and Adult Services, instead of remaining with Behavioral Health?

Guardians and conservators manage the personal and financial affairs of people who’ve been found mentally incompetent, and much of that is age-related. They can’t provide their own food and shelter. It’s Adult Protective Services that often receives those reports and is responsible for resolving those issues.

With our growing senior population, grouping these programs together allows for better integration of services for clients.

Is that the same reason that Senior Volunteer Services – which includes the foster grandparents program, senior companion program and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program – has returned to the Senior and Adult Services Division?

I thought Senior Volunteer Services would be a good fit for us. There’s a move to give seniors some standing and identity in our community, and part of that is offering a diversity of collaborative efforts in regard to social services.

What projects are recognized in your National Adult Protective Services Association award, to be presented this month?

I hate talking about this, but I’m excited about it. It’s an award for significant contributions to developing the field of elder abuse work through collaborative efforts. A number of projects over the years have enhanced the county’s services to seniors and dependent adults.

It’s strange to get an award. I’ve been doing what I enjoy doing. My degree is in social work, and social workers are driven by possibility.

Call The Bee’s Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136. Follow her on Twitter @AnitaCreamer.

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