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Elder abuse consistent in stats, but underreported, officials say

State reports released this week on abuse of dependent adults show little change in the number of investigated and substantiated cases in Jackson County between 2012 and 2013. But local officials say elder abuse often goes unreported.

According to the Office of Adult Abuse Prevention and Investigations' 2013 report, released Wednesday, investigators handled 801 cases of alleged adult abuse in both Jackson and Josephine counties; 182 of those cases were substantiated.

The agency's 2012 report, which counted each county separately, attributed 491 alleged cases and 125 substantiated cases to Jackson County.

OAAPI analyst Joe Merrifield said Thursday that state officials recently have been grouping cases by district, rather than by county. With Josephine County cases removed, the 2013 data shows 474 cases investigated inside Jackson County, with 114 of them substantiated, he said.

Merrifield said the slight decrease between years isn't necessarily good news.

"What it raises are concerns about reporting," he said. "Across the board, we're seeing increases (of substantiated abused) statewide."

Medford police Detective Sgt. Brent Mak, who heads the department's financial investigations section, says the numbers reflect his experience that levels of actual dependent abuse have remained relatively consistent throughout the region.

"I think it is pretty constant," Mak said. "I also think it is completely underreported."

According to the report, 31.6 percent of substantiated abuse statewide was financial, which Mak said corresponds with the department's own local experience. The impacts of that abuse, Mak said, can extend far beyond the victim's bank account.

"The emotional stress it causes on the seniors is just as bad as the exploitation itself," he said. "I know what stress can do, when you're dealing with people who are already at the end of their life."

Even if police can persuade victims to prosecute their abuser — typically a family member — it's rare to recover the misappropriated funds, he said.

Authorities are also restricted in seeking damages on behalf of deceased victims.

According to the state's 2013 study of financial exploitation, released in September, the majority of reported perpetrators in Southern Oregon were acquaintances of the victim. The average loss in substantiated cases was $26,868.

The annual report also tracks abuse cases involving developmentally disabled adults, listing 88 investigations and 43 cases with substantiated allegations in 2013. Just 10 of those cases were referred to law enforcement agencies.

"I don't see a lot of those," Mak said, explaining that it's partly because of state and federal safeguards for caretaking of dependent adults. Typically, he said, developmentally disabled persons receiving financial assistance will have a vetted representative payee or similar arrangement.

"When I speak to senior groups, I tell them, 'For fraudsters and scam artists, you are the No. 1 target pool,'" Mak said. "They are predominately the ones with the money. Why would you target a 20-something who doesn't really have anything?"

One of the biggest challenges police and elder-care advocates face in raising awareness of abuse prevention is broaching that delicate subject of financial arrangements between seniors and their family members. "The problem with power of attorney that most people forget," he said, "is that that person cannot (legally) financially benefit from helping you."

Mak recommends giving power of attorney to someone outside your immediate family or pursuing living wills or trusts.

Just getting people to report the abuse is another issue entirely, he said. Many people feel uncomfortable even considering that a friend or relative could be capable of exploiting a beloved family member, but it only takes one phone call to clear the air.

"If you suspect something is wrong, call the police or call Adult Protective Services," Mak said. "They can ask the hard questions."

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.