Deb Mitchell learned math by playing dominoes with her mother, and she knew her mom needed help when she couldn't match the numbers on the tiles anymore.
Rena Bryars, Mitchell's mom, would blame it on her glasses -- they weren't strong enough, there was too much light glinting off the lenses -- but Mitchell believed that it was the beginnings of Alzheimer's.
As the disease worked its fingers through her mom's brain and into more aspects of her life, Mitchell decided to get professional help. Things started to happen quickly after that, she said.
Her two long-estranged siblings
stepped in to help take care of their mother, who lived in Searcy, and persuaded her to create a trust fund.
"She really didn't have a chance to input," Mitchell said. "This particular trust gave them a two-thirds power of attorney. Basically, my input was never accounted for. They had control over her, her assets and everything."
After Bryars died in May 2012, Mitchell, a Yellville resident, consulted Matthew R. House of Little Rock, a lawyer whose specialties include estate, trust and probate litigation. She sued her siblings. The suit alleged
that she did not have enough say in what happened to her mother and that her siblings had used Bryars' money for "their own personal use and benefit," rather than for Bryars' best interest.
When the case went before 14th Circuit Judge John Putman in 2015, a jury agreed with Mitchell's contention that Bryars did not have the presence of mind to sign away her finances. And it decided that her siblings owed just over $1.5 million in punitive and compensatory damages to the trust fund.
The case is on appeal, complicated by the death of Mitchell's brother after the jury's verdict.
Now that Mitchell's brother has died, the question remains on whether to open his estate to pay his part of the damages if the appeal fails, said Richard Hatfield, attorney for the defense.
"Our defense was they didn't breach the trust," Hatfield said.
House said instances of senior financial abuse -- the practice of scamming senior citizens out of their money -- come most often from family members.
House started a blog called Arkansas Wealth Wars about the problem. He is one of only a handful of lawyers in the state who litigate such cases and usually gets 10 to 15 inquiries from potential clients each month.
"They're very emotional disputes because you're often dealing with someone who has passed away," he said.
House said this is often the reason lawyers don't want to take on these cases. They can also be difficult to try because by the time the case sees a courtroom, the person whose funds were potentially misused has died.
"I turn down far more cases than I take," he said.
Wills signed toward the end of someone's life are invalid if the person was not in an appropriate mental state, which is often associated with dementia, he added.
"People are living longer," House said. "So with the graying of America, you see more people with dementia."
Wills can also be declared invalid if there is "undue influence" put on the person signing the will. House said he once explored a case in which a woman was kept locked inside a house and coerced into signing away her money.
House's blog also addresses what he terms "sweetheart scams," which he said occur often online.
"[It starts] under the guise of forming a relationship with someone," he said. "You've got to be careful because your new sweetheart may have bad intentions."
Mike Hackard, a California lawyer, wrote a book on the problem of senior financial abuse. The Wolf at the Door (Hackard Global Media, LLC, 2017) outlines common settings for abuse and warning signs. He called such abuse an "epidemic."
"Studies show that incapacity, illness, isolation, grief, age, emotional distress and increasingly impaired cognitive abilities make an elder very vulnerable to elder financial abuse," he said.
He recalled one case he tried in which the caretaker would ask for her paycheck every day from a woman in her 90s who didn't remember whether she had already paid.
"Caretakers can be very dangerous, particularly where the caretaker assists in the isolation of the senior [citizen]," he said.
But, he said, untrustworthy caretakers are not as common as family members taking their older relatives' money.
House said if the case warrants it, he recommends that people report perceived coercion to Arkansas' Adult Protective Services program, which operates under the Department of Human Services.
Adult Protective Services investigates reports of exploitation, abuse and neglect of adults in Arkansas. Exploitation cases, which encompass financial abuse, nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, and more than tripled from 2014 to 2016.
The increase is on par with national trends, said Shannon Halijan, director of Adult Protective Services.
One contributing factor could be an increased focus on educating the public about who is legally required to call in suspected abuse or neglect. There are 26 categories of mandated reporters (professionals required by law to report abuse), including coroners, dentists, doctors and bankers.
Halijan said she has made a point of traveling the state to present information about the protective services program.
"All of a sudden, those people realize, 'Oh, I'm a mandated reporter,'" she said. "And I get phone calls after I've talked to community groups or banking groups. 'Hey, there's this case, should I call it in?' Yes, you should call it in."
The full list of mandated reporters can be found at aradultprotection.com/WhoReports.htm. Anyone -- not just those required by law -- can call (800) 482-8049 if he or she suspects abuse.
Financial abuse cases, labeled by the program as "exploitation," are some of the most time-consuming to investigate, protective services case workers said.
They are second-priority investigations because, unlike cases of rape or physical abuse, there is no immediate danger to the victim. Case workers have 72 hours to conduct the initial interview and up to 45 days to close the case.
Zachery Smith, a case worker who stays primarily in Pulaski County, said it usually takes him close to a month to conclude an exploitation investigation. These cases tend to have long trails of paper that are hard to trace because many of them are financial records.
Case worker Alexis Mead said that while exploitation takes longer to prove, the process can be shortened by banks willing to cooperate by providing financial records quickly. She works in smaller communities than Smith does and said she has had to work to develop relationships with bank employees.
"Some of the larger chains have departments that handle that kind of request," Mead said. "Smaller, hometown banks have one person that, if you've been here for a while, you know them by name."
Protective services workers across the state have different cases to handle. Most reports are of "self-neglect," which generally occurs when senior citizens living alone can't take care of themselves anymore.
Investigators have some 200 cases each on their plates at a time, according to agency data. The National Adult Protective Services Association recommends at most 25 cases per month.
Smith also ventures out to White, Lonoke, Prairie and Faulkner counties when the need arises.
"It all depends on where we have to take someone or do an investigation at," Smith said. "I've driven two hours one time to assist with a case."
Mead covers two counties -- Baxter and Marion -- but when she started three years ago, she covered Fulton, Izard, Stone and Cleveland counties. She said she usually drives about 300 miles per week.
"Travel is really probably what makes the biggest difference in the day," she said. Her region is rural and mountainous, so it takes longer to get from town to town.
Adult Protective Services has three regional field managers, in Fayetteville, Mountain Home and Murfreesboro. A fourth splits her time between Little Rock and Murfreesboro, Halijan said.
"It's been working," she said about whether the agency has enough staff members.
Adult Protective Services is working on reorganizing and re-prioritizing, said Craig Cloud, director for the Department of Human Services Provider Services and Quality Assurance Division.
"We want to focus on [Adult Protective Services], how we can make it stronger, better, more efficient," Cloud said. "I don't know if we can actually pinpoint any one issue to our circumstance at this time that would have resulted in the increased reports."
Mitchell said she talked with Adult Protective Services about what could be done when her sister was caring for her mother. The house was a mess, and Mitchell didn't think her mother was properly cared for. Mitchell says she was told that a case worker could recommend to the court that they take her mother into state custody, but once the home was cleaned up, her mother would go back into the same situation.
Mitchell called the process "the revolving door."
So she and her siblings had a hearing before her mother died during which she and her brother were awarded split guardianship. Professional caretakers moved in. They were paid monthly and kept the house in order.
But she was still concerned about her mother's financial situation.
"I began to wonder if there was going to be enough money to take care of my mom's long-term care," she said. She contacted House, and uncovered questionable uses of her mother's money. They found hundreds of forged checks over years and evidence that her checking account, which should have been funneled into the trust fund, remained open.
"How can they do this? You want to believe that your family has your mom's best interest at heart, her own children," Mitchell said. "It doesn't work that way, obviously."
Hatfield explained the appeal and said that Mitchell was also a trustee and "had every right to say something," but she did not.
Graph showing the number of Reported elder exploitation cases in Arkansas
Style on 04/08/2018
Print Headline: Easy prey: Hundreds of elderly Arkansans are victims of financial abuse — by caretakers or their own families