Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s first U.S. Senate hearing in Hartford dramatically tackled the multi-billion-dollar problem of financial elder abuse, drawing audible gasps Tuesday as a 90-year-old decorated World War II veteran described being turned out of his own home by a son.
“I come to you to testify as a proud survivor,” said the witness, Robert Matava of Unionville.
Matava said all the hardships in his life didn’t prepare him for a betrayal of trust. He served in World War II, received a Purple Heart after suffering a paralyzing gunshot wound to his back, lost his younger brother in the Battle of Iwo Jima, his wife to cancer and battled the disease himself.
He returned from war in the South Pacific and opened his own automotive repair business in 1948. He built a home with his wife, where they raised four children. As the years went by and his wife passed away, Matava said he wanted to move to Florida. He entrusted his son with his business and his estate.
“In all my 90 years I couldn’t predict the abuse I’d suffer at the hands of my own son,” said Matava, who was accompanied at the hearing by his other three children.
In 2010, he said he returned to Unionville, a village in Farmington, to spend his remaining years in the home he built with his wife.
“My son refused to let me in,” he said. “He said I better get a lawyer or pay him if I wanted to stay in the home that I built with my own two hands and raised him in.”
“I felt washed up,” he added. “I had trusted my children as any father would.”
Blumenthal, a member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, called the financial elder abuse Matava suffered and other forms of elder abuse “the crime of the 21st century.”
“The lack of awareness is an enemy here,” Blumenthal said. “These cases are often ignored and disregarded.”
He said he plans to push for the creation of an Office of Elder Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice and enhanced penalties for cases of elder abuse.
Sandra Timmermann, vice president and director for the MetLife Mature Market Institute, presented data from a study the company conducted with Virginia Tech, the University of Kentucky and the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, analyzing news articles detailing elder abuse from April to June 2010.
The financial losses attributed to abuse are staggering.
Of 389 unduplicated articles, 81 percent reported instances of financial elder abuse. In that 3-month period, the study calculated approximately $530,476,743 in losses due to elder financial abuse. Based on an estimate including unreported losses, MetLife calculated the annual financial loss to abused seniors in 2010 at $2.9 billion, a 12 percent increase from 2008.
“These caseloads are going up with the economic downturn,” said Kathy Greenlee, the assistant secretary for Aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Why it’s so underreported, I don’t think there’s an answer. It doesn’t fit neatly in one category.”
Elder abuse incorporates a wide range of definitions, including any forms of physical abuse, mental abuse, self-neglect, abandonment or exploitation. Certain professionals, such as licensed physicians, registered nurses, patient advocates and a variety of others are required to report suspicions of elder abuse in Connecticut. Financial advisors, however, are not.
“Financial advisors need to think about the ethical issues involved here and we strongly advise them to report any incidents,” Timmermann said.
According to MetLife, most cases of elder financial abuse stem from strangers participating in home repair scams, phone scams, robbery or burglary. Family, friends, neighbors and caregivers are the second most common perpetrators.
Greenlee asked Blumenthal and other members of Congress to support the reauthorization of the Older Americans Act, which created both state and federal agencies to provide comprehensive services for older adults. Congress reauthorized the act in 2006 through the 2011 fiscal year.
“The Older Americans Act is a critical component in helping at risk seniors remain independent and healthy,” Greenlee said.
She also lauded President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year, which allotted $16.5 million for State Adult Protective Services to improve their operations.
“I hope this message reaches the new congressional “Super Committee,” Blumenthal said.