Rise in senior-abuse cases prompts D.A. to step up to protect elderly

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Deborah Cooper Nixon was tapped by D.A. Seth Williams (top) to serve as director of the Elder Justice Project, which was created to better prosecute perpetrators and better serve victims of abuse.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Deborah Cooper Nixon was tapped by D.A. Seth Williams (top) to serve as director of the Elder Justice Project, which was created to better prosecute perpetrators and better serve victims of abuse.
Posted: February 20, 2013

ALICE THURNAU never left the hospital after suffering brain bleeding and a broken arm, hip, ribs, eye socket and sinus bone when she was knocked to the sidewalk in front of her Port Richmond home while being robbed of her purse.

Esther Ayodele had no signs of life when paramedics found her at her son's Germantown home. The medical examiner found 273 bruises, and wounds on every part of her 5-foot-2, 98-pound body.

Iris Galarza looked like a homeless drifter as she walked the streets of Kensington with plastic bags on her feet and reeking of urine. She had a home, but a woman she trusted was stealing her Social Security checks, resulting in Galarza's living in squalor and having to beg a store owner for food, authorities said.

These three women had one thing in common: old age. Thurnau was 90. Ayodele was 82. Galarza, who is deaf and has dementia, is 89.

In Philadelphia and across the nation, elder abuse - physical, financial, sexual or by neglect - is a growing problem, yet it dwells in the shadows of the better-publicized crimes of child abuse and domestic abuse, advocates say.

"Elder abuse here and everywhere is a hidden problem, and it's only going to get bigger, given the demographics of the baby boomers," said Joseph Snyder, of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging (PCA), a nonprofit agency that investigates abuse allegations and works to keep the elderly in their homes.

In response to the problem, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has revamped its elder-abuse efforts into the Elder Justice Project to better prosecute perpetrators and better serve victims.

Its director, Deborah Cooper Nixon, tapped by D.A. Seth Williams in December, has been with the office for 21 years, most recently as a homicide prosecutor.

"I think the time is now for elder abuse. I think that people are really looking at this epidemic and asking, 'Why?' They're asking, 'How can we roll up our sleeves and help?' " said Nixon, 48, holding up a thick stack of papers containing the names of hundreds of abuse victims age 60 and older with active cases in the D.A.'s office.

"I personally feel that elder abuse is heinous, and it's something that we as a society have to do more to stop," Nixon added.

She cited a study by Dr. Mark S. Lachs of the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York, which found that victims of elder abuse die sooner than those who have not been subjected to abuse.

In Philadelphia last year, the PCA tallied 2,800 reports of elder abuse, up from the 2,050 cases reported in 2008, said Snyder, PCA's director of Older Adult Protective Services.

Although national statistics on the number of seniors abused each year are imprecise, research indicates that one in 10 elderly Americans may experience some type of abuse, but that only one in five cases or fewer is reported, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.

"We as a nation have dragged our feet on this issue," Snyder said. "Just look at the numbers and the studies - it just blows me away."

The potential for a high rate of elder abuse is great here, Nixon said, because 276,000 of the city's 1.5 million residents are 60 or older - the age the D.A.'s office uses to define older adults.

Snyder, citing 2010 census data, said that the 17.2 percent of city residents who are at least 60 years old make Philadelphia the oldest in residents' age among the nation's 10 largest cities.

"This whole issue has been ignored for the longest time on all levels, so it's exciting to see new things coming out," Snyder said of Nixon's Elder Justice Project. "We're very excited about that."

Nixon, aided by Karina Puttieva, the project's elder-victim witness coordinator, has an ambitious agenda for the first year of the project.

Letters are being sent to victims providing a contact person in the D.A.'s office; all elder cases will be tracked from when they enter the court system to their completion to expedite them; and worksheets are being created for prosecutors detailing enhanced sentences for defendants, Nixon said.

To help prosecutors better handle elder-abuse cases, Nixon is writing a training manual detailing best practices. She plans to invite national elder advocates to speak with prosecutors, and she will make the rounds educating the community about the issue by speaking with hospital emergency-room staffers, at financial institutions and at nursing-care facilities.

Also, Nixon said, protocols are being created to instruct prosecutors on how and when to seek garnishment of defendants' wages and tax returns, to freeze their bank accounts and to force the sale of their assets.

Nixon also wants to establish a group of volunteer forensic accountants and financial analysts to aid prosecutors in complex financial-abuse cases.

To learn from each elder fatality, she said, she's creating an "elder-death review team."

"I am in a position to help so many more people than I have ever been in a position to help," Nixon said. "That's an awesome, awesome responsibility, and it's humbling. I think that everything in my career has prepared me for this moment. It's an honor, because when you think about it, the elderly are much like children, so vulnerable. They need a champion."

Lost victims

Alice Thurnau, who lived alone in the home where she was born in 1917 and where she and her now-late husband raised their two children, died 32 days after Daniel Hart and Charles Warenecki, both heroin addicts, mugged her.

Convicted of third-degree murder in 2011, Hart, 27, is serving a 20-to-40-year prison sentence, and Warenecki, 35, is serving 16 to 32 years.

Esther Ayodele, 82, who emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, was tortured for some time by her son, Adegbola Ige, 65, investigators said after his arrest in May 2010.

"I was ashamed to tell you I hit my mother with a cord," Ige told police in a statement read at his preliminary hearing. "I have never told anyone that. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders."

Assistant District Attorney Deborah Watson-Stokes surmised at the time that "he, rather than reaching out for help to some of the agencies that we have, started to abuse her."

Last year, Ige was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial, but last month he was ruled competent, although still in need of treatment.

Nancy Gonzalez, who had been employed as a secretary for City Council, was arrested in July and charged with stealing nearly $25,000 from Iris Galarza, who was moved to an elder-care facility.

A federal case

Not all cases of elder abuse are violent, and one played out this month in federal court in Philadelphia.

Anthony Oluwole Ojo's victims were elderly, relatively unsophisticated and extraordinarily generous. Each received a phone call from someone they believed was their grandson, who said that he'd been arrested in Canada for drunken driving and desperately needed money to pay legal expenses.

With the story, Ojo, 44, successfully defrauded more than 120 worried grandparents, many from the Philadelphia area. His take: $643,503.97.

Ojo, of Toronto, pleaded guilty in May to three counts of wire fraud. On Feb. 8, a federal judge in Philadelphia sentenced him to 45 months in prison and ordered him to pay full restitution.

It's unlikely that his victims will see any money, prosecutors said. And although justice has been served, it will do little to comfort his victims.

"Some may never financially, physically or emotionally recover from being duped by his cruel scheme," said Linwood C. Wright, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

- Sam Wood of Philly.com

contributed to this report.


On Twitter: @MensahDean

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