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In San Francisco, Elder Abuse Is the Perfect Crime
Yes, that's a crime
If you rob or beat up an elderly person in San Francisco, your chances of being convicted are fewer than one in 100, according to data in a recent city report on how local law enforcement addresses family violence.
"It couldn't be better if you're a predator," said Prescott Cole, attorney with California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.
According to the Comprehensive Report on Family Violence in San Francisco, the SFPD's Domestic Violence Response Unit last year received 95 reports of violence against an elderly person. Of those, police investigated only 41 cases.
Cole says academic studies show that only one-fifth of such incidents are ever reported to police.
Of the 439 elder financial abuse cases received in 2010, the department's Financial Crimes Unit investigated 140.
According to Emily Murase, executive director of the Department on the Status of Women, which published the report, police have taken the dismal numbers seriously, and have already implemented changes.
"I would say we really shined a light on the increasing incidents of elder abuse," she says. "The Police Department has reorganized the elder abuse unit, and they now have a full-time elder abuse inspector -- and have beefed up enforcement."
Officer Albie Esparza told us via e-mail that he had no information about changes implemented in response to the latest report:
"The cases must meet elements of the crime in order to be elder abuse (physical or financial). Furthermore, a lot of these types of crimes are not reported to authorities (due to fear, internal family disputes or embarrassment). We, as a Police Department, encourage any victim of a crime to report ALL crimes to police so that we may investigate them."
The District Attorney's elder abuse unit received 68 cases last year, and the office filed 45 criminal complaints. Ten of those cases were pleaded, while two were brought to trial, which resulted in only one conviction.
This low average can be attributed to the fact that elder abuse cases are brutally difficult for investigators or assistant DAs. For one thing, they involve witnesses who don't stand up well in court -- or even during an investigator's interview.
According to Cole:
Who's your witness? Somebody with poor command with the facts. And the witness may not be very motivated to go into a court battle. They do not want to put sonny boy in jail, or the daughter in jail. They just don't want to. Then there's the fatigue factor, where an elder is looking at last stages of his or her life, and they've shut down to a degree where they make it day-to-day, and they don't want to spend their last days in court ... and if they do, the defense attorney is going to turn them into sawdust.
Things aren't much easier for cops interested in taking on crimes of elder abuse, police say.
When you get into investigating cases where elders have been abused, often times the crime has occurred weeks, if not months, or years ago. What are the police supposed to do about it?
Other times, elders are ripped off by those close to them.
If it's a caregiver, or a family member, you have two problems. One, if it's one person's word against another's, that goes nowhere with the police. Then there's the other problem with the police: In society in general, people look at family members who take money from other family members, as, "So what? They took their inheritance a little early."
Even if a cop or an assistant DA decides to take on elder abuse, he or she isn't likely to get major kudos.
"It's not messing up the streets. It's not like hopping over homeless. Or having to look at problems coming in from gang violence, drugs, or other things things that society says are very serious," Cole says. "Nobody likes elder abuse. Nobody says it's a good thing. But it's not a priority. Not at all."
Correction: A previous edition of this item attributed one of Cole's comments to the DA's office. The Snitch regrets the error.