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California law defines elder abuse

Saturday, July 31, 2004

California law defines elder abuse
Convictions under law carry longer prison sentences

By Heidi Rowley

Prosecutors who try elder abuse cases are armed with a section of the state Penal Code that recognizes the vulnerability and helplessness of people older than 65.

The section, known as PC 368, turns a financial scam that could send someone away for 16 months to three years on a grand theft charge into a case with a special allegation that could ratchet up the penalty to between two and four years.

When a crime, such as assault, fraud or neglect, is committed against an elderly person, Tulare County Supervising District Attorney Bill Yoshimoto said PC 368 is used "because of the enhanced penalty" it will give against the perpetrator.

However, in cases where rape, murder or attempted murder are the primary crimes, the higher charges will be applied, and a special allegation using the elder abuse penal code will be added.

If the defendant is found guilty of the higher crime and the special allegation, the special allegation may enhance the sentence by one to three years.

For the elder abuse penal code to be used, Yoshimoto said the defendant must know that the victim is an elderly person. It doesn't apply if the victim just happens to be older than 65.

He said for the past three years one attorney in his office has been specifically working off a federal grant aimed at prosecuting elder abuse cases. Although the grant money ran out this year, he said elder abuse cases will still be strongly prosecuted because of the need for action.

"We're seeing now that this is a large and growing problem," Yoshimoto said.

Law enforcement

Before an elder abuse case arrives on Yoshimoto's desk, it will be investigated by local law enforcement.

At the Visalia Police Department, there is not a special unit for elder abuse and the department doesn't keep track of specific elder abuse cases, but those who investigate crimes know to watch for elder abuse.

Sgt. Steve Puder, who works in the violent crimes unit, said his detectives will investigate elder abuse cases that involve assault, sexual assault, neglect and intimidation. The instances aren't common, but he said they do get about 2-5 cases per month that would be considered elder abuse.

Most of the cases come from referrals from the Tulare County Adult Protective Services, but sometimes it happens in response to an assault call or a call from a neighbor.

If the case involves financial abuse, Sgt. Gary Williams of the property crimes unit said his detectives will investigate and videotape interviews with the victims "to make sure we get them accurate and on video file."

He said most of the cases he investigates are relatives or caregivers stealing money from an elderly adult.

Prosecuting the cases

Because elders are often reluctant to testify against their relatives or loved ones, Yoshimoto said prosecutors must come up with different strategies when using evidence, witnesses and experts, to eliminate the need for a victim's statement.

Yoshimoto compared elder abuse with domestic violence saying 20 years ago, prosecutors thought domestic violence cases were too difficult to prosecute because victims were reluctant to testify or would change their stories. Now, he said, the same stigma is applied to elder abuse cases, but attorneys are figuring out ways to prosecute.

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