Elder Abuse Remains A Legal Challenge in Iowa

Nov 19, 2019

Judy Morrison said trouble began days after her mom died in 2016. That’s when her father found more than $600,000 missing from her mother’s bank account.

"That's when dad found out and he just looked at me and he's like, I'm not happy," she said.

Morrison says that money came from years of work on his Johnson County farm where she grew up. It was supposed to go to him. Instead, Morrison said that money went to her half-sister’s bank account. And she spent months figuring out how.

"[It was] a lot of staying up late. Putting puzzles together," she said.

Morrison accuses her sister of forging documents and lying to her mother – who spoke little English – to get the money. But it took nearly three years before her sister was charged with first degree theft for taking the money without authorization because it involved a long, complicated paper trail and a very busy detective, she said.

“He kept saying, 'Well, I have homicides. I got human trafficking. I have this you know, we had a couple murders that were in there,'" Morrison said.

Her sister's trial is scheduled for March.

"On the legal side, it was fighting tooth and nail the whole way," she said, "and just especially for her to be able to do what she did, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that was just so easy.'"

'This case could consume all their time'

Morrison’s struggle doesn’t surprise Chantelle Smith. She’s an assistant attorney general in Des Moines who has worked on elder abuse cases for nearly two decades. 

Smith said she sees cases like this all the time. They can be challenging and time intensive for law enforcement -- specifically in rural areas.

"It's not like they're coming up all the time. It's not like, 'Oh, you know, I know this. We've got a basic routine for this. We've got a response for this.' If you have two officers, maybe you have two detectives, or one detective, this case could consume all of their time," she said.

Smith said she get calls every week from people who feel they have exhausted their options.

"I probably get 20 or so 20-25 calls, emails of people saying, What do I do? What do I do now?" she said.

'Just by numbers alone, you're going to be seeing more cases of this'

One in ten adults over 60 is estimated to have experienced some form of abuse whether that’s physical, emotional or financial, according to the National Council on Aging.

But less than 5 percent of these cases reach formal litigation after filing a complaint, according to a University of Iowa report.

The number of complaints of dependent adult abuse for those over 60 have increased in the past six years. Complaint referrals are rejected if the person is not considered "dependent" under state law or the abuse was not perpetrated by a caregiver.
Credit Iowa Department of Human Services

Numbers suggest elder abuse could be an increasing issue. Last year, the Department of Human Services received nearly 5,300 abuse complaints for adults over 60, up from about 860 just five years ago.

(See data on the number of complaints filed here and broken down by county here and here.)

A report from the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau found suspicious activity reports for elders quadrupled from 2013 to 2017.

Brian Kaskie, a professor of public health at the University of Iowa, said one reason for this jump is that more people are now aware of it. He co-authored a report on elder abuse in the eastern part of the state last year for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"I think we have done a good job of raising awareness. And so on one hand, you know, people are out there," he said.

But on the other hand, Kaskie said, Iowa has an aging population.

"You know, about one out of five citizens in our state are soon to be over the age of 60. So just by numbers alone, you're going to be seeing more cases of this," he said.

Kaskie said he found the state has made progress through training programs and statewide response teams. But he says these efforts are still chronically underfunded — particularly at the local level.

"Because then, you know, again, county attorneys need assistance," he said. "They need social workers, police officers to communicate more together to build the case, and again, that requires time and resources, and until those get allocated, you know, that it's hard to push these things forward."

Polk County, the most populous in Iowa, is the only county that has a unit dedicated to elder and dependant adult abuse.

Assistant Attorney General Smith said she'd like to see more assistance available to law enforcement statewide on elder abuse cases.

“If we could centralize it and say, 'okay, you officer in Keota, Iowa, there's only a couple of you, you need assistance. Let's get you the assistance you need so that you can do this case and so that this case can be prosecuted,'” she said.

The state attorney general's office just finished a three-year program funded by $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat elder abuse. Under the grant, 600 law enforcement agents, doctors, victim services providers and other professionals were trained on how to spot and investigate elder abuse.

Smith said the grant also created a community response team, which brings together people from different professions for regular meetings on how to address more systemic issues -- and piloted a "Later in Life Abuse" program in Dallas County that trains specialists to find and provide services to victims over the age of 50.

'The change has been dramatic'

Johna Sullivan, the executive director of the Crisis Intervention and Advocacy Center in Adel, said in the past 17 months, Sullivan says they’ve helped nearly 400 people ages 50-plus across 12 mostly rural counties.

"This change has been dramatic," Sullivan said. "I mean, it surprised me what our numbers are."

Sullivan said the center's Later In Life Abuse -- or LILA -- program has three elder abuse specialists assist victims by helping them move out of abusers’ homes, get to appointments, and even file police reports -- if they want to. 

She said they've found few victims want to go to the police, and that's because in nearly all of the cases, the abuser is a caregiver or family member.

"You don't want to see them get in trouble. And you also don't want, you know, you also see that they don't want to be retaliated against so they're fearful of that as well," Sullivan said.

She said of the six regions under the Iowa Coalition Against Violence, they're the only one with a program where specialists go out into the community to assist and educate people about elder abuse.

But Sullivan says the program is now hanging in limbo. It’s funded by a federal grant that ended in September, and they’re still waiting on an extension.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's health reporter.  Funding for her work is provided by the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation.