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Who’s scamming Mom? Chances are, it’s all in the family

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Brochures that provide information about reporting suspected elder abuse
The Minnesota Elder Justice Center provides advocacy services for victims of vulnerable adult and elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

When his mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2002, Scott S. Campbell had decisions to make. He had power of attorney. She lived with him and his family for a while, but eventually he decided she should move into an assisted living home.

She was angry with that idea. His brother stepped in, Campbell said, and as she was starting to deteriorate convinced her that it would be best “if he became her power of attorney and also became joint tenant of her accounts."

According to court records, between February 2003 and September 2004, Scott's brother spent about $107,000 of her money on himself, including buying a new Subaru and making improvements to his home. Scott says his mother was shocked to find out that her money was nearly gone.

"One of the things that she was adamant against was that we would make issue because he would potentially lose his career and/or subsequently be charged criminally,” Campbell said. “And that was just not going to be fathomable for her."

Scott's mother died in 2004. And his brother was ultimately sentenced on charges related to taking her money.

It was painful, Campbell said. “Those scars remain. It's very sensitive with family."

Three people posing for a photograph in a restaurant.
Doreen Campbell, Scott S. Campbell and his mother Lois Campbell in a photo Scott S. Campbell shared with MPR News. Campbell's brother was convicted of charges related to taking more than $100,000 from his mother's bank account after she'd been diagnosed with dementia.
Courtesy of Scott S. Campbell

Elder abuse can fall into a variety of categories — financial exploitation, neglect, or emotional, physical or sexual abuse, among other things.

"About 1 in 10 older adults will be a victim of abuse at some point during their life,” said Amanda Vickstrom, executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center. “And then when there's the cognitive impairment, a dementia, some other cognitive impairment, the risk goes to 1 in 5. It is vastly underreported."

The Minnesota Elder Justice Center conducts trainings, advocates for public policy, works in public awareness and does direct service for victims of elder abuse and their families.

The perpetrators of elder abuse can be scammers who work through phones, internet and mail. They can be people who work in residential facilities.

But, Vickstrom said, "About two-thirds of all the cases of elder abuse are actually perpetrated by a family member, a trusted loved one, as opposed to a stranger or someone that doesn't have a relationship of trust with that person."

Anoka County Attorney Tony Palumbo has worked on this issue for many years and made it a priority for his office. He said he sees children neglecting their parents, taking their money and physically or emotionally abusing them — or doing a combination of those things.

In financial cases, he often sees a son or daughter take a role as caregiver, but then take over the finances and start pulling money out of the parent's bank account.

"The other part of that is the mindset that they think, ‘I'm going to get it anyway when he or she dies, and I need it now,’” he said. “So they don't even really think it's a crime. Who turns them in are the siblings, because they are seeing Mom or Dad not being cared for."

Often, he said, the victims don't want to see their children or relatives get in trouble.

"When it is between family members, just like every other crime, there is a reluctance … to see someone punished severely,” he said. “They want the abuse to stop, but they don't necessarily want the offender to go to prison."

A woman wearing glasses sits at a table
Amanda Vickstrom is the executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, which provides advocacy services for victims of vulnerable adult and elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

There are times, too, when the victim is not capable of being a witness or has died, adding an additional layer of difficulty in prosecutions, Palumbo said.

What constitutes elder abuse or financial exploitation can be difficult to define.

"There is a lot of gray in this,” Vickstrom said. “There are times when somebody calls us and it's typically not that primary victim. It's a sibling, or somebody else (who) may not like a decision that Mom or Dad made, because Mom or Dad made that loan to somebody and it might not be financial exploitation. And we talk them through that, and we talk them through an older adult's right to make a financial decision if they have the capacity and they have the ability to do that."

It's expected that as the baby boomer generation ages, the number of elder abuse cases will grow just because of the size of the generation. Vickstrom said it will be important for law enforcement and public policy to be ready and have the tools in place to deal with those cases.

“One of the biggest barriers is we’re still just talking and learning about the issue as a state as a whole and frankly as a nation,” she said. “The elder justice programs are not prevalent in every state. .... We’re sort of where domestic violence was and sexual assault was, 20 years ago. We’re just sort of catching up.”