“What is most concerning about it is that it is hidden from view,” says Dr. Edie Greene, a cognitive psychologist and expert in how juries make decisions. “Even the victims are not aware they are being victimized. When there is a domestic violence or child abuse it is apparent something is happening, but with financial abuse and older adults that is not usually the case.”
Cheating elderly Americans out of their live savings is at “epidemic levels,” according to Dr. Mark Lachs, the Director of the New York City Center for Elder Abuse. It is estimated to be a $2.6 billion problem with as many as 5 million elder Americans victimized every year.
Unfortunately, it is also a difficult crime to prosecute or litigate. Jurors, even judges, have misconceptions about financial elder abuse, and the victims themselves are sometimes unaware that they have been exploited, or make poor witnesses because of mental frailty or fear.
“Often the victim will not want to press charges or not be a cooperative victim. Sometimes older adults don’t make good witnesses because their memory is fuzzy or they die,” says Greene. However, it is possible for experts to give a kind of “general framework testimony” that could convey information about the factors common in elder fraud that could solve some of these issues.
Greene and her colleagues looked at current research on elder fraud in the US and identified 25 common factors. They looked at circumstances in which elder fraud occurred; they looked at their relationship to the perpetrator; the techniques that perpetrators used to manipulate victims; their reluctance to report financial abuse for fear of reprisal or fear of being further isolated, or abandoned; and why elderly people sometimes seem inconsistent in their facts or even recant their testimony.
From there it was possible to outline a kind of general set of circumstances and conditions in which elder abuse occurs. That general framework can then be used to help jurors and others understand the situation.
“What this allows us to do as expert witnesses is say, ‘in general, this is what happens, and you the jury get to decide whether it happened here,’” says Greene.
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Greene’s expert testimony framework for elder fraud has not yet been used in a courtroom. However, prosecutors are interested in anything that helps them deal with the tsunami of financial abuse cases that are increasingly making it to the courts. “This sounds interesting,” says Washington State prosecutor Page Ulrey, who is currently engaged full time in handling financial exploitation court cases. “Anything that helps us deal with these cases is definitely something I want to look at.”