Elder protection bill unanimously passes Ohio House

House Bill 24, otherwise known as the Ohio Elder Justice Act, is being pushed by State Rep. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton. Retherford said seniors today need some added layers of protection, and the bill would bring about better tracking of patterns of elderly abuse, increased awareness and research of the problem and tougher penalties for those who abuse or take advantage of the elderly.

“As technology advances, so does the use of technology for evil purposes,” said Retherford, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea. “Updating our elder abuse laws to meet today’s demands is just a small step we can take to ensure the protection of our growing senior population from losing their life’s savings, property and dignity.”

Crimes against the elderly are growing both nationally and in Butler County, law enforcement officials say, especially as the population of older adults increases. A Department of Justice study estimated in 2009 that about one in nine people ages 60 and older suffers abuse each year. For every one case reported to authorities, it is believed five more go unreported.

Betsy Leugers, of Darrtown, said she likes the sound of the bill, but wants to learn more about it before forming an opinion.

“What would it do to the people that scam? Is it going to cause for their prosecution? What limitations does it have on everybody?” Leugers said while quilting at Partners in Prime in Hamilton on Tuesday afternoon.

She said a law giving extra help to the elderly would be a good thing.

“There are lots of little people who are locked in their rooms, and you wouldn’t know that,” Leugers said of the fear some seniors experience.

Among other things, the bill includes:

  • The requirement of the Department of Job and Family Services to report on the creation of a registry to help identify patterns of abuse;
  • The obligation for employees in several financial fields to report suspected elder abuse to help prevent the elderly from falling victim to financial crimes; and
  • The establishment of a statewide Elder Abuse Commission, which will increase awareness and research of elder abuse, improve policy, funding and programming related to elder abuse, and improve the judicial response to elder abuse victims.

Ohio’s population of adults ages 60 or older, which stood at 2.28 million in 2010, is expected to grow significantly in coming years, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. The number is projected to increase 29 percent (to 2.95 million) by 2020 and nearly 50 percent (to 3.42 million) by 2040, according to the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University. Such statistics point to the potential for a significant increase in elder abuse cases in coming years.

“The more older people there are just means there are more people that are susceptible,” said Susan Costantino, club and wellness coordinator for Partners in Prime. “And people are looking to make a quick buck, and they don’t care who they hurt.”

Doris Swegert, of Fairfield, who was also at Partners in Prime on Tuesday, is well aware people will try to scam the elderly and commit crimes against them. She has not been a victim, and protects herself by not answering the phone if it’s a blocked number or one she doesn’t recognize.

“And if they don’t leave a message, I don’t talk to them half the time,” she said .

Seniors are targets, physically and financially, of strangers, friends and sometimes their own family, said Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser. After prosecuting a Trenton woman who bilked an elderly woman out of more than $200,000, Gmoser formed a task force in 2011 to offer both education to senior citizens about crimes that may target them and to assure that such cases were aggressively pursued.

Gmoser said crimes involving the elderly have risen nearly 50 percent since 2005.

“I think that knowledge is power,” the prosecutor said. “And when it comes to support people and emergency personnel, I want them to be reporting.”

Gmoser said the senior population is “an underrepresented class in our society.”

“And the reason they are being attacked is because it is one of the most unreported crimes when you have elder abuse, and they are suspect to financial crimes,” he said. “They are ashamed, and they don’t want their children to know that they did something so boneheaded.”

Gmoser said the elderly fear their children may restrict their access to bank accounts, take their vehicles away or put them in a retirement home.

“So they suck it up, they lose their money, and they don’t make a report,” he said.

Gmoser cites Barbara Howe as a classic victim of elder abuse. The 87-year-old resident of Mount Pleasant Retirement Village in Monroe was allegedly killed in 2012 by Daniel French, a former maintenance employee at the facility. French allegedly scammed his way into Howe’s cottage with the intent to rob her by telling the elderly woman her medical alert system needed repairs, police said.

Once inside her home, police and prosecutors say French slit Howe’s throat several times after using a stun gun on her and attempting to strangle her.

Then this past October there was the beating and robbery of 82-year-old Elmon Booth of Middletown. Booth was attacked in his home by three men who hit him with a brick and choked him before fleeing with his 24-inch television, $10 worth of change and his hearing aids. All three men were arrested and are expected to go trial this spring.

Costantino said if the bill becomes law, she hopes reporting systems and the added measures are well publicized.

“If this passes and it’s made known widely to anyone who works with seniors, that’s huge,” she said. “I think that extra level of protection would be great.”

This article contains reporting from Staff Writer Lauren Pack.

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