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Who can you trust?

Days after her husband died from a heart condition, Medford resident Wendy Tracy was getting dressed and decided to put on the diamond earrings he had given her as a last Christmas present.

The earrings were gone.

Julia Marie Free, a caregiver with Home Instead Senior Care in Central Point, had stolen the earrings the same night Tracy’s husband died.

In January, Free pleaded guilty to first-degree theft — a felony — and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation and 80 hours of community service for the December 2016 crime, according to Jackson County Circuit Court records.

She was banned from working as a caregiver or volunteer with anyone age 65 or older, and was ordered to pay $1,500 in restitution, court records show.

Tracy said she had always had good experiences with caregivers in the past, and wasn’t sufficiently on guard when Free showed up from Home Instead to care for her terminally ill husband overnight.

“I know in my heart I do not want this to happen to anyone else,” Tracy said. “I felt so stupid. Why were my defenses down like that? I assumed they were sending someone reputable and well-trained and honest. I’m still devastated by this and always will be.”

Although most caregivers are committed to their patients, various types of abuse — including financial abuse — do occur, said Lori Rathburn, supervisor of Adult Protective Services for Jackson and Josephine counties.

Professional caregivers, family members and others are among the perpetrators.

“I think the general public doesn’t realize it’s as common as it is,” Rathburn said. “We have 11 investigators in Jackson County and six in Josephine County. They’re swamped.”

In 2017, a total of 3,844 allegations of abuse were reported in the two counties, and 1,857 of those were investigated, according to Adult Protective Services statistics.

The agency investigated 585 reports of neglect, 565 reports of financial abuse, 249 reports of emotional or verbal abuse, 198 reports of physical abuse and 128 reports of self-neglect last year.

Investigators also examined smaller numbers of reported isolation, sexual abuse, abandonment, use of restraints and cases involving multiple allegations.

Reports of suspected abuse have increased annually for at least the past five years.

Back in 2013, the agency fielded 2,342 reports, compared with the 3,844 received in 2017.

The theft

Tracy said her husband, Dave Tracy, loved picking out a special present for her each Christmas.

With his health failing, a friend helped him shop online and choose the diamond earrings.

On Christmas morning in 2016, she opened a little red box to find the earrings. They both knew it was his last present to her and she cried over the gift.

Tracy wore the earrings Christmas Day, then put them back in the red box on her dresser.

She and her husband’s adult daughter decided to use caregivers through Home Instead beginning the day after Christmas. Everything went well until Free arrived for the Dec. 27 overnight shift.

To Tracy, Free seemed too young and inexperienced and acted oddly, at one point picking up a different pair of diamond earrings and later prowling through the house at night and making a comment about Tracy’s “really nice things.”

That night, Tracy was in her bedroom, her husband was in the guest room and her husband’s daughter was on a sofa bed in the family room.

At 2:15 a.m. on Dec. 28, Tracy said Free woke her up by shining a flashlight in her face and telling her to come to the guest room.

Tracy said her husband was in the throes of dying. Free told her he had been trying to get out of bed and was combative.

Free continued to act inappropriately — yawning, saying how tired she was and asking questions about the couple’s marriage, Tracy said.

At 4:30 a.m. on Dec. 28, Tracy’s husband took his last breath.

In the days that followed, Tracy noticed that the little red box containing the diamond earrings was missing from her dresser.

She found the empty box in the guest room where her husband has died.

Tracy believes her husband saw Free stealing the earrings and became distraught, putting added strain on his heart and hastening his death.

Three new lipstick tubes and a fake diamond ring that looked real were also gone from the house.

“She had been very busy with her flashlight. She was not taking care of Dave,” Tracy said.

Lessons learned

Newly widowed, Tracy began an investigation and legal process that stretched more than a year.

“I’m dealing with grief,” she recalled about her mindset in the beginning. “I’m in unknown territory. I don’t know the legal process or the lingo. Things like this do not get wrapped up quickly like on ‘Law & Order.’”

But Tracy said staff members with Adult Protective Services and the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office helped her during the process.

“I’ve been blessed with the most wonderful people who guided me through this,” she said.

Tracy said more needs to be done to inform people how to safeguard themselves or loved ones. She would like to see hospital discharge planners, hospice workers and others provide information about safety precautions when using caregivers.

“We’ve got so many people who are getting older and want to stay in their homes,” she said.

Tracy wants more stringent screening of applicants by home care agencies, as well as a longer training process.

Gina Ortega, caregiver relations manager for Home Instead in Central Point, said the company takes numerous steps to protect patients and their families.

“The elderly are a vulnerable populace and we go to great lengths and take measures to make sure they’re taken care of on every level,” she said. “Our screening process is one of the most stringent.”

Home Instead does pre-employment drug testing and employees are subject to random screening plus screening if there is a reasonable suspicion they are using drugs, Ortega said.

The company performs Jackson County, state and national criminal background checks and checks to see whether applicants are registered sex offenders, she said.

Home Instead checks with databases to see whether applicants have had professional licenses revoked, including medical licenses. It also does driving record checks, Ortega said.

“It’s safer to go through an agency because we do have these background checks,” she said.

Caregivers must go through the checks and receive training before they can work with any patients, she said.

Home Instead does internal investigations of complaints and is also a mandatory reporter of suspected abuse and other criminal activity, Ortega said.

The company is bonded and insured, she said.

Despite low unemployment levels in Oregon, Ortega said she hasn’t noticed Home Instead having difficulty hiring quality caregivers.

“There are always individuals who want to help the elderly,” she said. “They want to be there for seniors.”

Oretga said it’s unfortunate that a few bad apples give caring, committed caregivers a bad name.

Tracy said she appreciates the job done by most caregivers, including the Home Instead caregiver first assigned to her husband before Free arrived for a night shift.

She previously had good experiences with caregivers for her mother and father as well.

“It takes a very special person to be a caregiver, and I believe the majority of them are,” Tracy said.

Protect yourself

To be on the safe side, Tracy recommends people secure all valuables — even items that have only sentimental value — with other family members or in a safe deposit box before a caregiver comes into the home.

Tracy advocates the use of home video surveillance cameras.

She also uses an alarm system for her house, especially since she worries Free may have told others about her home.

“She knows everything in my house,” Tracy said. “She could tell anybody. I was terrified I was going to be robbed.”

Rathburn, the supervisor with local Adult Protective Services, offered additional safety tips.

She said although home caregiver agencies are required to do background checks, families should ask how long ago checks were performed on particular caregivers.

If a caregiver was hired seven years ago, for example, the background check could be outdated, Rathburn said.

She said hiring a solo live-in caregiver can lead to trouble.

“It provides a lot of opportunity to see too much of the finances when they are involved at that personal of a level. We find the opportunity has often been too tempting,” Rathburn said. “It’s important to have more than one person. It’s actually better to have different shift caregivers. They bring a different set of eyes.”

In cases of neglect, for instance, a caregiver coming on shift may notice the previous caregiver hasn’t given proper care, she said.

If families hire independent caregivers rather than using a home care agency, they should pay to have criminal background checks performed, Rathburn advised.

Like Tracy, she recommends home video surveillance.

“If several people are coming in and out of the house, you can go to interview the person about a theft and they could blame someone else. It’s hard to prove. Video surveillance can really put the nail in the coffin,” Rathburn said.

Rathburn and Tracy both said higher quality caregivers would be attracted to the field and stay in the industry if they received better pay.

Even if family members have hired a caregiver, they need to make sure someone else is checking in regularly on the person receiving care, Rathburn said.

People who visit homebound seniors through the local Food & Friends program, also known as Meals on Wheels, may notice something is wrong, she said.

For example, the utilities may have been turned off even though someone is supposed to be paying the bills, Rathburn said.

Volunteers with the ACCESS Friendly Companion Program also can visit seniors, she said.

“These people are some of the most vulnerable people out there,” Rathburn said. “They can’t protect themselves. Things can go wrong unless family and friends are looking in on them. The more eyes on a person, the less chance there is of someone ripping them off.”

In case of a suspected theft or other crime, people should contact their local law enforcement agency or Adult Protective Services. Police and the agency cross-report cases to each other, she said.

To report suspicious activity to Adult Protective Services during business hours, call 541-618-7853.

To make a report at any time, call 1-800-503-7233.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Wendy Tracy is speaking out after a caregiver stole diamond earrings that were given to her by her dying husband.