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Federal aid helps in elder abuse prevention

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Posted: Thursday, November 2, 2006 10:00 pm

She just wanted to be near her son.

That's how Diane Batref, program manager of the county's victim witness program, explained the case of a 90-year-old client who San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department deputies recently found covered with sores and living in her own waste.

Her son was supposed to be taking care of her and her money, Batref said, but she refused to testify against him.

In the end, she never had to.

"It was such a horrific case of abuse that her son was convicted without her testimony," she said. "She didn't want to be alone, and she was willing to accept any care."

In an effort to prevent and prosecute cases like these, the county's board of supervisors on Tuesday agreed to spend $110,000 in additional federal money to pay for a full-time elder abuse advocate.

"It's a good place to invest some money to help elderly citizens who really can't help themselves," Supervisor Leroy Ornellas said.

With an annual budget of $450,000, Batref's eight full-time advocates help victims and witnesses of all types of crime - including domestic violence, rape and even suicide - navigate the legal system and get other kinds of help.

Last year, 33,440 cases came through Batref's office in the courthouse in Stockton. Of those, hundreds were directly linked to elder abuse. There were 60 felony and misdemeanor convictions, the district attorney's office reports.

But recent awareness efforts by Batref, local and county law enforcement and the district attorney's family crime unit, have flushed hundreds more victims and witnesses of elder abuse out of the shadows.

"We've just been inundated over the last two years," Batref said. "I'm amazed how little people know about them. They're the forgotten victim."

Often, victims have dementia or other disabilities, while loneliness - or the fear of being alone - seems to make them vulnerable. Greed often motivates abusers, Batref said. That's why real estate fraud is a common link in elder abuse cases, and even families or neighbors are culprits. And when the property and money runs out, so does the attention.

"They're not working, so seniors often can't regain their funds," she said.

Then they start to whither away, forgotten victims of financial crimes that rarely make headlines.

Batref remembers a case where financial stress caused one woman to drop 25 pounds in a few weeks. By the time she appeared for her sixth court appearance, she couldn't stand up. Another client hadn't eaten for two days, and when he showed for court, he was too confused to testify.

The solution to elder issues "isn't always about prescription medicine," Batref said. In this case, it's to know who's watching whom, and keep the "fox from watching the hen house."

The county's family crime unit, which applied for the federal grant money on behalf of Batref's program, last month set up an elder abuse fraud phone line - with a person who answers the phone, not a machine. Meanwhile, county agencies are training local police to look for clues of elder abuse.

For more information, call the Elder Abuse Hotline: 468-2488 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Contact reporter Phil Hayworth at phayworth@tracypress.com.

First published: Friday, November 3, 2006

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