Since Spring of 1999, the County has been providing a wide range of new services for elders and dependent adults who have fallen victim to physical, emotional or financial abuse. Pursuant to 1998 amendments to the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Welfare and Institutions Code Section 15600 et seq.) counties throughout the state were to expand the services provided to this vulnerable population by May 1, 1999. Due to the diligence of the County's Department of Aging and Adult Services, this County was one of the few counties in the state that met the deadline and that decided to expand its services beyond those required by state law.
Adult Protective Services (APS), the County agency charged with the responsibility of investigating most reports of known or suspected instances of abuse, has expanded its services significantly. The agency installed a toll-free telephone hotline (800-414-2002) that allows members of the community to report suspected instances of abuse or neglect on a 24-hour basis. In addition, APS hired new social workers and continues to hire new staff to assist with expanded case management duties that include conducting home visits in the evenings and on weekends.
The Department of Aging and Adult Services has also assembled the "Financial Abuse Specialist Team" (FAST). This team is composed of representatives from Adult Protective Services, the Office of the Public Guardian, the District Attorney's Office and County Counsel's Office. The mission of FAST is to identify, investigate and prevent financial abuse of elders and dependent adults in an efficient and expedited manner. As part of FAST, County Counsel initiates civil protective proceedings for incompetent elderly individuals and brings civil actions on behalf of the Public Guardian to recover estates taken from these individuals.
The Santa Clara County model differs from other financial abuse prevention teams in that "rapid response" by the team members is a central component. "Immediacy is important to freeze assets and to prevent financial destitution," says Lee Pullen, Director of the Department of Aging and Adult Services. When APS receives a call through its telephone hotline, APS immediately determines whether the case is appropriate for FAST. A referral to FAST triggers a prompt visit to the elder or dependent adult by at least two members of the team.
This multi-disciplinary team approach yields results. For example, a person suspected of wrongfully acquiring title to an elder's home recently agreed to rescind the sale of the house after an investigator from the District Attorney's Office, an APS social worker and a Deputy Public Guardian visited the elder and interviewed the suspect.
FAST is needed because of the increase in the number of financial abuse cases. The sharp rise in real estate values in the Bay Area coupled with an often trusting and vulnerable senior population has resulted in an environment that is ripe for abuse. Cases with a financial abuse component are often complex, containing other forms of abuse, including emotional or physical abuse. As a result, it is not unusual for FAST to find elders facing situations such as the following:
- An elder's adult child is residing in the senior's home, isolating the elder from friends and relatives. The senior has become very dependent, surrendering all control over her checkbook and enduring constant emotional abuse. She knows something is wrong but does not believe she is a victim of elder abuse, refusing help from Adult Protective Services or any other agency.
- An elderly widower residing in a home worth more than $700,000 is befriended by a younger person. The person promises to be his caregiver if allowed to live rent-free in his home, but leaves shortly after accruing significant credit card debt in the elder's name.
- A woman in her nineties is residing in the house she purchased more than 30 years ago. Her relatives, who now hold the house in trust for the elder, refuse to provide adequate care to the elder, allowing the elder to go without medical treatment for long periods of time.
The inclusion of the County Counsel's Office and the District Attorney's Office facilitates the early identification of complex legal issues that arise in financial abuse cases. Team members meet on a regular basis to discuss the legal remedies available to abuse victims. Remedies that FAST has utilized to date include the filing of criminal charges against the suspects by the District Attorney's Office and the filing of civil actions by the County Counsel's Office on behalf of the Public Guardian's clients.
Case Profile 1
Mrs. B. is a 73 year old woman who is aphasic (speech impaired) due to a stroke six years ago. She spoke only Spanish prior to her stroke and is illiterate. She is a retired cannery worker who purchased a home in San Jose and owned it free and clear of mortgages until she was approached by her former son-in-law. Mrs. B's former son-in-law, a convicted felon, teamed up with another convicted felon and real estate broker. Together with family members and an attorney, they persuaded Mrs. B. to sign documents taking out a series of loans against her property, totaling $160,000. Mrs. B. received none of the loan proceeds. The loans were assigned to purported 'good faith holders' who are now attempting to sell the property.
The County Counsel's Office has filed a civil action alleging lender fraud, attorney malpractice and other civil causes of action against the son-in-law, the other family members, the lenders, the attorney, and others involved in the loan processing. The County Counsel's Office has obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the sale of the home and stipulation from adverse parties that it shall remain in effect until the matter is resolved.
Case Profile 2
Ms. M. is an 83-year-old widow who owns a number of apartment buildings in Milpitas and the rental income from the buildings comprise her sole source of income. She moved up to the Redding area after her husband died. She was befriended by one of the tenants in the apartment buildings who began to manage the apartment buildings and to take care of Ms. M's finances. Unbeknownst to Ms. M, the tenant took out fifteen loans totaling over $2.6 million (in principal) on her apartment buildings, leaving the properties with $1.6 million in encumbrances.
In October 1999, our office filed the action on behalf of Ms. M, suing the tenant as well as various title companies and mortgage brokers who participated in these unauthorized loans. They were sued for breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligence, and unfair business practices. This action successfully concluded in a significant victory for Ms. M. in June of 2000 in which the County recovered a majority of her money for her.
The case has been settled for $1.4 million. Santa Clara Land Title/Financial Title and the lenders for the last thirteen loans settled for $900,000. In addition, those lenders agreed to waive foreclosure charges and other penalties to Ms. M totaling approximately $50,000. The Public Guardian's Office sold the house that the tenant had purchased with loans from Ms. M's properties; the County recovered approximately $85,000. The tenant's real estate agent had returned approximately $65,000, and another broker settled for $15,000. Just before trial, two other defendants agreed to settle for another $205,000. Finally, on the eve of trial, the final defendant, Chicago Title Company, agreed to pay $140,000.