Attorney at Law Magazine publisher Sarah Torres sat down with Guy Hart of Elder Senior Court to discuss Protecting Our Elders.
AALM: What are some of the issues facing seniors today?
GH: There is an epidemic of scamming, especially, vulnerable seniors, as elder financial abuse keeps escalating across the country. Our aging population are more vulnerable as they are more trusting and susceptible to trickery, as well as less likely to fight or report the scams. The authorities and courts are not up to date with latest scams and are less likely to investigate or prosecute financial abuse cases.
AALM: Why are elders/seniors being targeted?
GH: Paying their monthly mortgage for 40 or 50 years has created significant equity in their homes and large savings accounts that have accumulated over the years. Predators, scammers and unscrupulous professionals realize that tricking elders and seniors is very easy.
AALM: What is causing this alarming epidemic trend?
GH: New technology makes it too easy for predators to conduct a home-theft scam—i.e., taking over the elder’s deed of trust—which ultimately leads to an increase in homelessness— and identity theft . It’s also easier now for people to pull off the fake-arbitration, “grandchild needs money,” the lawyer’s-inflated- fees and the time-share scams. These are committed by unscrupulous counsel by professionals and caretakers who are more eager to help themselves than the elder.
AALM: What are the stats on the aging population?
GH: Our population is aging as Baby Boomers approach the winter of their lives. There are more than 50 million Americans over age 65, and of that, more than 5.8 million have Dementia, Alzheimer’s and other mental and physical health challenges. Diabetes afflicts more than 12 million, heart disease 6 million and cancer 5 million. More than 8 million are veterans, and 1 million of these now face or have faced homelessness. There are an estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors.
With age, we become more vulnerable. Our faculties and defense mechanisms slow down, providing predators and scammers the opportunity to exploit, take advantage of and defraud us. It is estimated, by AARP Public Policy Institute that one in five is a victim of elder financial abuse, accounting for an estimated 10 million annual victims. Many of these cases end up lost in the shuffle because the elder runs out of money, energy or both to continue navigating through the convoluted legal system bringing further financial despair and suffering to the elder, while the scammer gets a way and continues scamming more elders.
AALM: What is the mission of Protecting our Elders?
GH: Our mission is to end elder financial abuse and the suffering that it causes the elders and their families by shining a spotlight on their causes and creating awareness. We are educating and training the public, seniors, elders, law enforcement, the district attorneys, the state bar and the judiciary for better understanding and better enforcement of the law. We’re bringing all the agencies together in a united manner to transform the way we treat our elders and protect them from this dangerous trend. Over-65 seniors are a protected class under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (the Elder Abuse Act). Taking advantage of, stealing from and defrauding an elder is a crime, and it’s time for that to be known and enforced at all levels.
AALM: How does Protecting our Elders take action for seniors?
GH: Our 100% focus is the simple assignment of one court room in every courthouse across the nation as a dedicated department that handles all elder/senior-related cases and issues, rather than mixing elders’ cases with Family, Civil or Probate departments. The goal is to provide a collaborative, dedicated department with a judge and staff specially trained to recognize and deal with all the latest scams. It would be similar to Juvenile court, which provides its judges with the specialized training and understanding of the protected class rights.
AALM: Who are the group’s volunteers, and what do they do?
GH: We are a young organization that started to get active less than 18 months ago and are currently growing. Our volunteers are victims, victims’ family members, lawyers, judges, millennials and other concerned citizens who have seen or experienced first hand the devastation of elder financial abuse and its aftermath of pain and suffering. We’re people who are therefore inspired and motivated to take a stand against this trend.
AALM: How did the idea for Elder Senior Court evolve?
GH: After my father passed away in 2013, my mother—who was at that time 73—was a victim of fraud. Now, six years later, she is 79, we have been through the entire legal system and the multiple court rooms, and I personally spent many hours and days seeing hundreds of elders confused as they were shuffled in and out of multiple departments and court rooms. We have seen, heard of and received many complaints and reviewed many cases that were mishandled by the courts and lawyers who did not have specialized training. So about a year ago, as I was facing these daily challenges, in meditation I asked for clarity and guidance on what would be most effective and most productive to help the thousands and millions of elders and seniors at risk. The answer came loud and clear: ESC—Elder Senior Court.
AALM: What is the current situation for elders facing the court system?
GH: It’s very dismal. If they receive more than $1,300 per month in Social Security, they will not qualify for free legal aid. Most civil lawyers require a $5,000 or $10,000 retainer just to review a case. There is no Self Help Desk for seniors and the court clerks are instructed to say, “I am not a lawyer,” and that they cannot help them. When the elder or his family go to the police to file a theft /crime report, the police deflect it to the Civil system and remedies, even though it is Criminal in nature. They tell them to go find a civil lawyer, as they do not view financial crimes as a criminal act. The predators realize the courts’ and law enforcement’s lack-lustre understanding and are, therefore, not afraid to do more of the same. Having a dedicated court room with the same judge and staff will create an awareness that will tighten the scammers’ ability to manoeuvre to numerous courtrooms and go undetected.
AALM: What actions have you taken so far to establish Elder Senior Courts in Los Angeles and around the country?
GH: We have produced a five-minute public service announcement, a short film that will be coming out soon. We have a petition that is about to launch. And we have had numerous discussions with judges, lawyers, politicians, elders, elders’ families and the public.
AALM: What can attorneys do to get involved?
GH: We are looking for compassionate attorneys who understand or are interested in understanding the ins and outs of elder financial abuse to join our network and to help victims regain what has been stolen from them.
Also, there are many incentives for lawyers to win financially. The law provides for full recovery of all legal fees, treble damages, punitive damages as well contingency, pro bono, low bono and more. It is our goal to create a strong task force that will support the elder/ senior community, while at the same providing attorneys the opportunity to fight for what’s right and to make a good living, which equals fulfilment.
AALM: How are you getting the word out?
GH: Word of mouth, social media, the PSA, and professional publications and media.
AALM: How can attorneys expand their practices/book of business/clientele by getting involved in the protection of elders?
GH: We have an Attorney Contact page and a package for qualified attorneys who are interested in our mission and want to get involved and help.
AALM: Why else should attorneys care about the welfare of seniors in the court system and in general?
GH: It’s the right thing to do. It’s actually way overdue—we should have had an Elder Senior Court for years now. Elders should be honoured, respected and revered. They have invested 65-plus years in our society and deserve a quiet and peaceful retirement, and to not be preyed upon in their golden years. Hopefully, we will all reach the senior/elder age. We will want to know that we are protected by honest professionals, lawyers and a dedicated courtroom that ensure our legal rights are truly protected and carried through.