Elder abuse on rise


POSTED: Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Honolulu prosecutor says crimes against the elderly are “;starting to snowball”; and that the failing economy makes senior citizens even more vulnerable.

Two recent high-profile elder abuse cases—against a nursing home worker accused of sexually assaulting dementia patients and a son accused of beating his ailing father—put a spotlight on violent crimes allegedly committed by caregivers, but deputy prosecuting attorney Scott M. Spallina said financial exploitation committed by relatives is more commonly reported.

“;The majority of perpetrators are family members. Maybe extended family, nieces, nephews, grandkids,”; said Spallina, who heads the city prosecutor's elder abuse unit. “;There's a lot of property theft, burglary, stolen cars. The majority of seniors still reside in their own homes, so the majority of abuse happens there.”;

The special unit, operating for about a year and a half, expedites elder-abuse cases by prosecuting them vertically, meaning that one attorney handles the case all the way through, and by providing an array of social services to help the victim through the process.

Although Hawaii has no specific elder-abuse law, several statutes make it easier to prosecute crimes against senior citizens, Spallina said.

One mandates prison time for assaults that result in “;substantial bodily injury”; if the victim is 60 or older. The other, which took effect this month, qualifies “;vulnerable”; adults for protective services under the state Department of Human Services when abuse occurs. Previously, the law covered “;dependent”; adults, leaving many elderly unprotected.

Another advantage of Spallina's unit is that prosecutors and police now work together to ensure that suspects are no longer released pending further investigation if the victim is 60 or older.

“;Before, especially in property crimes, they would get released and be out there doing the same thing and the police would be rearresting the person,”; Spallina said. “;Now they are held (on bail) and we rush it to the grand jury or a preliminary hearing. The police are liking it, too. It gets these people off the streets.”;

Spallina said at least one new criminal case opens each week. Although some of the increased caseload is related to stepped-up reporting and enforcement, part is due to rising crime, a surge he expects to intensify amid the poor economy.





        Here are helpful numbers for vulnerable seniors:

» Adult Protective Services: 832-5115


» Senior Helpline: 768-7700


» City Prosecutor's Elder Abuse Unit: 768-6452


» If the emergency is life-threatening, call 911.


» For more information, see the Elder Abuse Unit's Web site at http://hsblinks.com/iv


“;If you find you have an adult child who is living at home because they can't get a job or keep a job, that's a stressful situation,”; Spallina said. “;People have to recognize that stress can lead to abuse, whether (that's) stealing someone's money or hitting someone in anger.”;

The caseload represents only a fraction of the actual crimes committed, he said.

“;They say that elder abuse is where domestic violence was 20 years ago. Nobody talks about it, nobody thinks it's happening. But it is happening, everywhere,”; said Spallina. “;As you know in respect to the Kahala Nui case, it was only brought to light because of the defendant being seen. Imagine if this person did it when no one else is around?”;

In that case, Mark Genetiano, 24, is accused of pinching and twisting the bare nipples of three dementia patients, ranging in age from 89 to 92. Genetiano has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial next month; he was fired from his job as a certified nursing assistant.

“;This is one of the flagship facilities. If it can happen there it can happen anywhere,”; Spallina said, praising the Kahala Nui care facility's cooperation in the case.

In another high-profile case, William E. Singer, 57, awaits sentencing Aug. 2 after pleading guilty to the March beating of his 89-year-old father, an invalid who died about a month later of medical ailments unrelated to the assault, according to the autopsy.

The “;very sad case”; case illustrates what can happen when a usually competent caregiver snaps, Spallina said. “;Neighbors said he took good care of his dad. But that day, he lost it.”;

While cases of physical abuse may garner the most media attention, the more common theft and property crimes may at first go unnoticed even by the victims, until a bank account is empty, a cherished piece of jewelry disappears or a long-parked car disappears from the driveway.

Once realization hits, prosecutors can depend on forthright testimony from reliable witnesses, unless dementia or some other cognitive problem is a factor.

“;Oftentimes seniors are your best witnesses ... You steal something from a senior, you're going to be held responsible for it, because their sense of morality is very strong,”; Spallina said. “;It's not a question, of 'Oh, I got my car back, I don't want to testify.' They want justice.”;

That trust in the legal system makes the work especially rewarding. “;They're relying on us,”; he said. “;These cases are starting to snowball, and we want people to know where to turn for help.”;