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.
The conviction of former Jackson County employee Marc Hawk on elder abuse charges last month closed the book on a painful family struggle.
Now, the relatives of the victim, Earla Mae Cowan, are hoping the case also changes the way elder abuse is prosecuted in the future.
“I hope it does,” said Ann Buchanan, Cowan’s niece. “But 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.”
Last month, Hawk pleaded guilty to one felony count of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. Hawk used a power of attorney to drain his aunt’s bank account of over $60,000. The case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.
Hawk received five days in jail and a five-year suspended sentence that includes $53,438.87 of restitution to Mrs. Cowan. Buchanan said the sentence wasn’t as heavy as the family wanted.
“We didn’t get exactly what we set out to get in the beginning,” Buchanan said. “But the case was not dismissed, and there were times it looked like it might be.”
For Buchanan and her brother and sister, Bruce Buchanan and Kay Clemmons, the conviction was a vindication of a two-year struggle for justice.
“We had evidence in our hands that nobody wanted to look at,” Buchanan said. “It was hell.”
When the siblings first learned their aunt only had $18 left in her bank account, they had two concerns. The first was to care for Earla Mae, and the second was to see justice done.
According to Buchanan, both the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney were reluctant to investigate the case. Buchanan said more than one person told the family the case was a civil matter, but she and her siblings refused to be put off.
“We told them we don’t want to gain financially,” Buchanan said. “We want justice. He did wrong, and we want someone to know.”
The case exposed the difficulties of prosecuting elder abuse cases in general. Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and has been a resource to the family in its quest to bring Hawk to justice.
Rich said a long history of failed prosecutions left both victims and law enforcement officers demoralized.
“When they’ve been charged, the cases have often been dismissed. There’s been no teeth in the law,” said Rich. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward.”
The state statutes on elder abuse require victims to be both elderly and disabled, and often times, law enforcement officers find it more expedient to prosecute cases without triggering the specific elder abuse statutes.
“Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them,” Rich said. “But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony.”
In Hawk’s case, the elder abuse statute upgraded the felony from Class H to Class G. Rich has used a federal grant to train law enforcement in the seven western counties to recognize and prosecute elder abuse using the statutes.
The overwhelming majority of elder abuse crimes are perpetrated by family members, a fact that makes them even more difficult to prosecute. Rich hopes Hawk’s conviction will send a strong message that elder abuse is a crime that will be prosecuted on its own merits.
“Law enforcement will be much more likely to charge in the future because this one was successful,” Rich said.
Elder abuse takes many forms and, thanks to a national grant program, law enforcement officers in Western North Carolina now know what to look for.
In 2007, the Department of Justice awarded the 30th Judicial District Sexual Assault Alliance a grant to train law enforcement in the seven western counties how to identify the signs of elder abuse.
The grant comes to maturity in October and so far the program has trained 200 law enforcement officers and over 1,500 individuals who regularly deal with the elderly from church volunteers to hospital workers.
Michael Rich, director of the 30th Alliance, said the organization recognized the need to train law enforcement personnel on elder abuse because cases weren’t getting prosecuted.
“What we discovered in the early ‘90s with domestic violence is that unless law enforcement is trained to use the statutes, they won’t use them,” Rich said.
Because 85 to 90 percent of elder abuse crimes are perpetrated by family members, the cases were confusing to prosecute.
“It used to be that the police would say, ‘This is a family problem and we’re not getting involved,’ and now they’re realizing it’s a family problem but it’s also a crime,” Rich said.
Stats indicate the training program is working. The first year of the grant, the 30th Alliance dealt with 18 cases involving elder abuse. The next year the number increased to 27. This fiscal year, the agency has already addressed 27 cases in just the first six months.
Rich said the faltering economy has also played a role, leading to an increase in financial exploitation of elderly family members.
Detective Jeff Haynes of the Waynesville Police Department has acted as the law enforcement training liaison for the grant. Haynes, who also spent 15 years in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, said the trainings have created a better working relationship between groups that deal with elder abuse issues.
“By raising the consciousness through the grants, the law enforcement personnel, the social services and the courts are coming together,” said Haynes. “You might not see the impact directly on the statutes but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Haynes said North Carolina still needs to strengthen the statutes with regard to elder abuse. The state put specific elder abuse statutes on the books in the mid-1990s.
“We use them but they’re weak in the state of North Carolina and hopefully we’re moving towards some improvement at the legislative level,” Haynes said.
Next month, the first successful indictment relying solely on elder abuse statutes will be heard in Jackson County Court. For Rich and Haynes, the case, which centers on financial abuse, represents the culmination of a colossal effort.
“The beauty of it is that due to the grant and the training, the awareness was there and the people involved knew what to do,” said Haynes.
The WNC elder abuse grant was one of only 10 awarded around the country, mostly to programs in major metropolitan areas like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver.
The 16-hour training deals with physical, sexual and financial aspects of elder abuse. For Haynes, one of the most important messages for law enforcement officers is that elder abuse isn’t the problem of the poor.
“The face of elder abuse runs the gamut. I’ve dealt with cases with wealthy families all the way down to the people who don’t have anything,” Haynes said. “The vast majority of the families view this as an entitlement issue.”
Rich believes elder abuse is an issue that will continue to emerge as the population ages.
“We’re just a handful of folks that are advocates for elders in abuse situations, and if we’re not doing it there won’t be anybody,” Rich said. “The way the demographics are going there will be more and more seniors, and the need will increase.”
The senior citizen population is growing in Western North Carolina, and with that increase comes the increasing potential for abuse, exploitation, or neglect of the elderly.
By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer
Assistant Attorney General David Kirkman hits the play button on a small stereo and turns up the volume. A recording of two voices fills the room at the Jackson County Department of Social Services Building. One voice is that of an elderly woman. The other, a younger male con artist.