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How the Oregon Attorney General's Office Tackles Elder Abuse

Ellen Klem, Director of Consumer Outreach and Education, Oregon Attorney General’s Office

Approximately one in ten Americans over 60 has experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimate that as many as five million elders are abused each year, and those numbers are only going up. In one year alone, reports of financial exploitation in Oregon increased by nearly 20 percent and represented almost half of all abuse investigations conducted by the state.

Fighting these types of abuses has been a priority of mine for nearly 15 years and I am pleased to continue the fight with Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. She shares my passion for protecting older adults. In 2012, when I began working for Attorney General Rosenblum at the Oregon Department of Justice, we decided it would be my mission to prevent financial harm to older Oregonians. My work involves all aspects of this mission:

  • Creating financial education campaigns that target vulnerable Oregonians; 
  • Coordinating and hosting speaking engagements and other events to increase safeguards and public awareness to prevent financial harm to vulnerable Oregonians, especially seniors;
  • Serving as a liaison among the Oregon Department of Justice, federal, state, and local government entities and officials, tribes, community organizations, advocacy groups, and members of the media; and
  • Working with the attorney general and the Oregon Department of Justice to prevent and address financial harm that affects vulnerable Oregonians.

To serve our mission, I have created educational tools aimed at combatting elder abuse, especially financial exploitation.  Attorney General Rosenblum and I both know that well-informed Oregonians are more likely to recognize fraud and less likely to become victims. We also know these scams can be hard to track and prosecute.

Because education is so critical, we have a number of resources available for consumers, including:

  • A searchable online consumer complaint database called Be InfORmed. 
  • Scam Alerts sent via email, our website, and Twitter to more than 15,000 Oregonians. 
  • A toll-free complaint hotline that is staffed five days a week with some of the most knowledgeable volunteers in the state.
  • An easy to remember website – oregonconsumer.gov – with numerous consumer protection materials available for free.  Some examples of these materials include:  
  • The latest campaign, “Just Hang Up!” was released on World Elder Abuse Day to educate Oregonians about imposter scams and fraudulent phone calls. 
  • Our most popular handout, the “Six Signs It’s a Scam.”
  • Top Ten Consumer Tips to Protect You and Your Family. 
  • A “Wise Giving Guide” to help consumers make smart donations to non-profits. 

To ensure the materials are easily read by older adults, all of our handouts are written for an eighth grade reading level, in accordance with the National Institute on Aging’s guide for older readers, and reviewed by a non-profit called Elders in Action for true readability. 

I also plan speaking engagements to address the need for more safeguards and public awareness activities to prevent financial harm to vulnerable Oregonians. Every week I am in a different city, talking to a different group of Oregonians. And every day, I hear stories from our most vulnerable residents about a wide variety of scams and frauds, which further galvanizes my passion for this work.

I realize I am just one person and Oregon is a big state, and I cannot be everywhere at once. That is why I also dedicate time to creating and nurturing partnerships with all of the different constituencies which interact with, and can play a role in, helping us protect seniors. Through these partnerships, I am able to share complaints, coordinate investigations, and disseminate information to the public. Our partners give us a bigger voice with which to share information and keep Oregonians safe.

In fact, one of the most successful partnerships we have is with AARP Oregon and related state agencies. Since October 2013, we have worked with AARP Oregon, the Oregon Department of Business and Consumer Services, the Federal Trade Commission, Senior Health Insurance Benefits Assistance Program (SHIBA), the Oregon Construction Contractors Board, and the Senior Medicare Patrol to co-host educational programs where seniors and others learn about how to stay safe from fraud and scams. These “Scam Jams” are held in multiple locations across the state three times a year and typically draw between 100 to 500 attendees for each program. 

Every fall, I also plan and host Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum’s Annual Elder Abuse Conference. Nearly 200 members of law enforcement, district attorneys, deputy district attorneys, U.S. attorneys serving in Oregon, Adult Protective Services, medical professionals, and individuals employed by the federal, state, or local government attended last year’s conference. Attendees can choose from a wide-variety of workshops taught by professionals with expertise in myriad fields related to elder abuse prevention. Last year’s most popular workshop -- “Is it Abuse? Or Are They Just Old?” – was presented by a physician board certified in internal medicine, geriatrics, hospice, and palliative medicine.

Perhaps my most important work is the work I do “behind the scenes” at the Oregon Department of Justice. Internally, I work collaboratively with all nine divisions, 1,300 employees and 26 states offices of the Oregon Department of Justice to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect older Oregonians from abuse. 

The passion with which the Oregon Attorney General’s office has focused on protecting our state’s older adults has contributed to the effectiveness of our work with our partners in this endeavor.  The office is recognized as being a zealous advocate and expert in dealing with those issues that affect our older residents and, as such, can bring different professionals together at key parts in our investigation and handling of cases.  This strengthens our response and those of other partner state agencies to improve and protect the lives and property of Oregon’s older adults.

To expand our protection efforts, in 2015, we worked closely with  the legislature to approve the funding for one permanent full-time elder abuse resource prosecutor and two permanent full-time investigators who provide the critical investigative support needed to look into the complaints received and to find the evidence needed to bring cases against those who would abuse our most vulnerable citizens. Ten organizations, including AARP, Legal Aid, the Oregon State Bar, and the Alzheimer’s Association, all voiced their support for the new positions, and the Oregon Legislature listened. In March 2016, the Oregon Department of Justice’s elder abuse unit began to take shape, making Oregon the third state in the country to have a statewide prosecutor devoted exclusively to elder abuse work.

These positions have increased Oregon’s capacity to stop elder abuse by providing training, technical assistance, and legal expertise to district attorneys, law enforcement, and others who work with older Oregonians. The relationships we have been building with our partner organizations were key to this legislative victory and appropriation. Beyond this legislative success, these organizations have been instrumental in our efforts and key partners in the fight to end elder abuse. Another key partnership is with the Social Services Fraud Work Group, which meets monthly. The work group — in existence since 2011 — is multidisciplinary and comprised of more than 30 federal, state, and local agencies working fraud cases in the field of social services. At each meeting, members of the work group share tips and work collaboratively to fight social services fraud. The success of the work group has inspired the creation of two additional work groups, one in Alaska and another in Washington State. We are pleased to serve as a model and a resource for elder abuse programs other states.

Elder abuse is, tragically, a growing epidemic in Oregon and across the nation. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to work with the Oregon attorney general, who shares my passion for this important work, to prevent it, address it, and hold perpetrators accountable.

 

 

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