Elder abuse cases at 'epidemic' levels in state; bill aims to fight problem

SEATTLE -- Weeks after Mariana Cooper lost her daughter to cancer, a woman who befriended Cooper started exploiting her grief.

“She convinced my grandmother to get a reverse mortgage on her house,” Amy Lecoq said.

From there, the financial predator convinced the 87-year-old widow to loan her money.

“This is a crime based on a relationship so, in a lot of ways, there are grooming behaviors that go into it,” Lecoq said.

Cooper's granddaughter wishes now she had spotted the red flags, the increased isolation and early dementia.

“She was passable in her behavior; we never worried about her memory,” Lecoq said.

It was only after the scamming incident that family members learned Cooper had early dementia.

By that time it was too late -- Cooper had "loaned" more than $200,000 of her life savings.

“We were shocked. We didn’t know what to do. Do we call the police, do we call Adult Protective Services?” Lecoq said.

Cases like Cooper's are skyrocketing.

In 2016, Adult Protective Services, a part of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, said they received more than 42,000 reports of alleged abuse against vulnerable adults.

The reason why the 42,000 cases are significant is because when you compare it to 2014 it's a 62% increase. In 2014, there were 25,889 cases reported. In 2008, there was 14,337 cases, meaning a nearly 200% increase if you compare 2008 to 2016.

The aging baby-boomer population is one of the reasons for the growing trend.

“Physical and financial abuse of the elderly is at epidemic proportions now,” state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said.

Sadly, a majority of the times, the perpetrators are family members.

Goodman is behind a recent bill that will strengthen penalties.

“The governor will certainly sign the bill,” Goodman said.

The bill would also give victims more time -- 6 years instead of 3 -- to go after scammers.

“Financial abuse of the elderly is often not discovered in time,” Goodman said.

Goodman added that extending the statute of limitations will help prosecutors get more convictions.

Lecoq lobbied lawmakers to make the changes in hopes of saving others.

For her grandmother, it is too late.

“My grandmother will never be who she was before, she's lost everything, she worries about every dollar that comes in,” Lecoq said.

The main advice Lecoq has for everyone is to have frequent conversation with parents and older loved ones about finances, even though it may be uncomfortable.

“I suggest that the whole family has the conversation together. If everyone in the family is talking to the vulnerable adult in their life about this topic, it's less likely that one of them will take advantage,” Lecoq said.

In September, Pierce County kicked off what they are calling "The Elder Abuse Project." The U.S. Justice Department gave the county a $400,000 grant to help. Pierce was one of just nine counties in the nation to get the grant.

The money was used to create a team of about 20 caregivers, law enforcement officers, adult protective services and others to fight elder abuse and to help with training and victim services.

"The team can link victims to financial services, legal services, mental health and other services the victims need," said Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist.

Lindquist said since the team was put into effect he has seen a jump in elder abuse getting reported and cases being prosecuted. He believes this latest bill will encourage all counties in Washington to follow Pierce County and form a team to better protect vulnerable adults.