Elder abuse case shines light on larger issueWritten by Scott McLeod
If you believe people usually get what they deserve, then the recent conviction of a Jackson County man on elder abuse charges was welcome news. Best of all, it could open the door for similar charges against others taking advantage of the elderly.
Mark Hawk pled guilty to a felony charge of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. According to the charges and testimony from family members, Hawk duped his elderly aunt out of nearly $60,000 after gaining a power of attorney. He was sentenced to just five days in jail but was also ordered to pay restitution of nearly $54,000.
The winner in this case, however, isn’t just this victim — Earla Mac Cowan — and her family. It’s the thousands of other seniors in our region who could potentially suffer from the same fate. As many as 10 percent of all seniors who rely on family members for care are victims of some kind of abuse, and for every instance of abuse reported another five go unreported.
These cases present a particular quandary for law enforcement and the judicial system. Most of the time it occurs among family members, making it that much more difficult to prosecute. When is a gift of a large sum of money theft versus just that, a gift? Worse, who wants to publicize internal family issues that are often embarrassing and painful? This case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.
Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and became an advocate for the family members who sought prosecution. He says the challenges faced by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in the past had left them wary of taking on cases like these. To be found guilty under the elder abuse statutes, the victim must be elderly and disabled. In many cases it was easier to just convict abusers without the more stringent penalties included in the elder abuse statute.
Rich, however, says the Jackson County case may help in many ways. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward ... Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them. But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony,” he said.
What can we learn from this case?
Well, family members of this particular victim are encouraging those who suspect that abuse has taken place to be strong in seeking prosecution: “... people just have to know there will be doors slammed in their faces, and they have to keep on knocking loud and be ready to go through,” said Ann Buchanan, the niece of the Jackson County victim.
Second, law enforcement in this region is gaining experience in fighting these crimes, so that should reassure those who suspect abuse is taking place. Sybil Mann, who is head of 30 Judicial District Alliance for Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault and over the SAFE program, has been promoting awareness of elder abuse issues in the seven western counties among service providers, law enforcement and the judicial system. Rich, who is program director for SAFE, is doing work on the ground to help those who suspect abuse is taking place.
As our population continues to age, we should be acutely aware of family members and friends who could become susceptible dependant on others for care. And we can be thankful that SAFE is out there, helping those who harbor suspicions that terrible things are happening.