COLUMBUS, Ohio--Ramona Wilson, 74, tidied her house, parked both of her cars in her garage, shut all the doors and turned on the engines.
But before she could climb behind the wheel and asphyxiate herself, two strangers were tap, tap, tapping on her front door. Wilson wanted to chase them away. But one of them — Dave Kessler, of he Ohio attorney general’s office — told her he understood the shame and embarrassment she must have felt after being conned out of $50,000 by a man she thought loved her.
“She needed to hear that it wasn’t her fault,” Kessler said.
Ohio officials hope to elevate elder abuse to the forefront of societal concerns through stories such as Wilson’s in much the same way that attention was called to child abuse 30 years ago and to domestic violence 10 years ago, said Cynthia Dungey, director of Ohio’s Department of Job and Family Services.
The state also plans to create a stronger statewide adult protective services (APS) system and wants to encourage the kind of collaboration among caseworkers, law-enforcement agencies, prosecutors and others that helped put Wilson’s life back together.
She Didn’t Have to 'Stop Living'
“It was like he had been sent from God,” Wilson said of Kessler. “I learned that while I couldn’t go back and change things, that didn’t mean I had to stop living.”
Wilson told Kessler how she had met Charles Sellers at church one summer afternoon in 2005. He was 24 years younger than she was, but they exchanged phone numbers and struck up a friendship.
What she didn’t know was that Sellers had recently been released from prison, after serving 10 years for fatally shooting a man during a gambling argument.
Wilson, who lost her third husband, James, not even a year earlier to Alzheimer’s, was lonely and still grieving. Sellers, who lavished attention on her, finally admitted details of his past, but he had convinced Wilson he was a reformed man, a good Christian, deserving of a second chance.
After a three-month courtship, Wilson and Sellers married. He then persuaded her to take out a $14,000 home-equity line of credit on her North Side house for home repairs and for a business opportunity.
Soon, Sellers disappeared, and Wilson saw ATM withdrawals. Before long he had blown $50,000, including Wilson’s entire life savings.
“Can you imagine your whole life gone like that?” Wilson asked. “The worst part was I lost my respect. Even my own children were talking behind my back.”
With Kessler’s help, Sellers was sentenced to five years in prison in 2007. He appealed and, in 2008, was given five years’ probation and ordered to pay $14,326 in restitution.
To spare others the pain she went through, Wilson, who had become pastor of her church, traveled the state with Kessler to tell her story.
“I’m not a victim anymore,” she said. “I’m an overcomer.”
State's New $10 Million Funding
As the nation grows older, state- and county-run APS programs will play a more critical role than ever in investigating abuse, neglect and financial exploitation, experts agree. But, they note, programs are underfunded, lack oversight and vary dramatically because no minimum standards have been set.
For example, Ohio has 88 counties and 88 different approaches to protecting elders.
To better coordinate the protection, Dungey, of Job and Family Services, said the state plans to spend about $2.6 million to create a central hotline, data-collection system and minimum standards and training requirements for the APS programs in the counties.
Last summer, a working group set up by Gov. John Kasich recommended that the state also provide $4.4 million in grants so counties can create plans to meet the new state requirements. Another almost $3 million will be available to counties that partner with other agencies to fill service gaps.
“Without question, the willingness of the legislature and the governor to put $10 million on the table seems to be an indication that the state is trying to make some traction on the issue of elder abuse,” said Bill Sundermeyer, AARP’s associate state director.
However, Lynn Wieland, a retired consultant who oversaw the APS in Cuyahoga County, which included Cleveland, said to truly solve the problems, the state needs to make a lasting commitment to elder abuse and provide strong leadership and funding.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced an Elder Justice Initiative last May to increase the investigation and prosecution of elder-abuse cases and improve victims’ access to services. It promises to bridge the gap between existing systems, including adult-protective services and local law enforcement. (See sidebar.)
Two state representatives reintroduced a bill in February that would extend the definition of elder abuse to include financial harm, neglect and exploitation and create a registry to identify and track patterns of abuse.
Once scammed, many have to go on Medicaid and other public assistance just to survive. “We want to help keep seniors self-sufficient and help protect taxpayer money,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Wes Retherford.
The Ohio Family Violence Prevention Project, a group of health and social-services experts, is recommending that Ohio allow “convenience” bank accounts, which enable a designated party to monitor a senior’s account and to deposit and withdraw funds.
The project also recommends that the state consider creating an elder-abuse forensic center, Steinman said. At many of the forensic centers popping up across the country, public-health and law-enforcement officials are learning to use the same techniques popularized on the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation TV series to root out elder abuse and neglect.
Despite funding challenges, many adult-protective-services programs are learning to do more with less, said Andy Capehart, assistant director of the National Adult Protective Services Association.
For example, New York City sends caseworkers and trained volunteers each month into the homes of older adults who have problems managing their finances to help pay their bills and make sure they are not being abused or neglected, Capehart said.
Sacramento, Calif., contracts with hospitals to provide services to patients who are frequently hospitalized and at high risk of abuse or neglect. Fairfax County, Virginia, uses contracted psychologists and nurse practitioners to help assess the physical and cognitive abilities of older adults.
Some good work is being done in Ohio, too.
Licking County in Central Ohio, for example, has an interdisciplinary team of professionals, including court, fire, law-enforcement, mental-health and social workers, who meet monthly to work on the more complicated cases. This year, it plans to add representatives of banks and other financial institutions.
Cuyahoga and Franklin counties have both put more money into their APS agencies than the state provides. For instance, Franklin, which includes the state capital of Columbus, received $45,711 in state money last fiscal year but spends about $1.6 million a year to handle about 1,400 calls.
‘Making it Worth the Pain’
Dave Kessler, who helped Ramona Wilson regain her life, now works for the prosecutor and the Department of Job and Family Services in Fairfield County. He still aims to hold accountable the con men and women who take advantage of the elderly.
Wilson’s ex-husband, Charles Sellers, moved to Massachusetts in 2008. Wilson said he has paid her just $6 of the $14,326 the court says he owes. Sellers could not be reached for comment.
Now 82, Wilson can no longer handle the physical strains of touring the state to tell her story, but she has written a book that she hopes will lift the spirits of others who have been conned.
“It still hurts, but if I save just one person, all the pain will have been worth it,” she said.
This article is adapted from a longer story by Columbus Dispatch reporter Encarnacion Pyle, who wrote this series supported by the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation. Also see her article, “Often, Elderly Abused by Relatives.” Dispatch Librarians Linda Deitch, Julie Fulton and Susan Stonick contributed research for this series.
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Despite Improvements, Ohio Advocates Say Anti-Elder Abuse Funds Fall Short