September 23, 2019
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Financial abuse still a major problem for elderly Mainers, police say

KENNEBUNK, Maine — Whether they are being scammed by someone from faraway or by someone in a position of trust much closer to home, incidents of financial abuse of the elderly tend to go unreported.

Candice Simeoni, founder and president of the York County Elder Abuse Task Force, said nationally, current estimates put the overall reporting of financial exploitation at one in 25 cases.

There are the scams perpetrated by a stranger calling, claiming to be from the IRS, or saying they’re lottery officials from Jamaica, or some similar big lie.

But some forms of financial exploitation can be more insidious.

Perpetrators tend to be family members, or someone else in a position of trust, said Simeoni.

Victims often don’t report crimes against them, she said.

“They’re of a generation when this happens in the family, it stays in the family,” Simeoni said.

And in some cases, health issues — like dementia or some other malady — might cause the abuse to go unnoticed for a while.

In May 2017, a West Newfield woman was sentenced to serve 2-4 years in a New Hampshire prison for stealing more than $90,000 from her mother who had Alzheimer’s disease, according to New Hampshire news reports. The theft came to light when Donna Dell’s mother was no longer able to pay for her private nursing home care.

Another case — one that Simeoni investigated in her capacity as a Kennebunk police officer — is currently making its way through the court system.

Last fall, a York County grand jury indicted a Wells pastor and former candidate for the state Legislature on a number of charges including felony and misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a dependent person, misdemeanor criminal restraint, criminal trespass, criminal mischief and theft.

Police claim Peter Leon befriended an elderly incapacitated Kennebunk woman and then allegedly tried to gain control of her finances. Leon, whose LinkedIn account lists his role as a former teacher and wrestling coach in Downeast Maine and owner of a Kennebunkport tennis center, entered a not guilty plea to the charges at York County Superior Court in December.

A 2017 report by the Muskie School of Public Service examined case files from 2010 through 2016 from Adult Protective Services and Legal Services for the Elderly and concluded that family members accounted for most forms of financial exploitation.

The report, authored by Eileen Griffin, Catherine McGuire and Kimberly Snow, titled “Financial Exploitation of Maine’s Older Adults,” noted that 57 percent of all Adult Protective Services perpetrators were family members and 68 percent of all Legal Services for the Elderly perpetrators were family members. Their research found that 75 percent of APS and 59 percent of LSE victims of financial exploitation were older than 75.

York County Sheriff William King, who was a major with the department at the height of the lottery scams in 2012, said reports of those incidents are no longer at the all-time high they were, but the agency that serves rural York County continues to get some calls about them.

“A lot more than I’m comfortable with,” he said. The agency gets few calls reporting other forms of financial exploitation of the elderly, King said.

Simeoni, who previously served with Kennebunkport and Eliot police before joining the Kennebunk Police Department, is an officer who has seen a lot of elderly folks in distress, whether through self neglect — like someone not talking their medication, not eating properly and not looking after their personal hygiene — or who are victims of a scam or are abused in some other way.

“I have a soft spot for seniors,” said Simeoni in a recent interview.

Her affinity for those in their elder years may come from her close relationship with her grandmother.

“Growing up, my best friend was my Nana,” she recalled. “On New Year’s Eve, we’d buy ice cream and make sundaes and watch the ball drop.”

That warm, loving relationship combined with her law enforcement skills sparked Simeoni to establish the York County Elder Abuse Task Force in 2005. The task force includes people representing social services, legal services for the elderly, financial institutions and law enforcement. The primary goal of the group is to share knowledge and skills, serve as a resource, and to educate the public about elder abuse. The group comes together to discuss current events, cases and legislation, she said.

The group’s motto is “taking care of those who once took care of us.”

Some of the signs of elder exploitation according to Simeoni include: the older person doesn’t know what happens to their money; checks no longer come to the house; there’s an unexplained disappearance of funds or valuables; the elder reports signing papers and doesn’t know what was signed; and/or there is a transfer of property and savings.

Often, financial exploitation is not one isolated case she said, usually there are multiple victims.

Not every case results in a charge. But she urges seniors who think they are victims of financial abuse to call either their local law enforcement agency, the Adult Protective Services hotline at 800-624-8404 or Legal Services for the Elderly at 800-750-5353.

“If something doesn’t feel right, let’s talk about it,” she said.

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