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California | ON THE LAW

Advocate Is Committed to Fighting Elder Abuse

Helen Karr, who earned her law license at age 64, is on a mission to combat the widespread financial exploitation of the elderly.

August 01, 2003|Akilah Johnson | Times Staff Writer

A Valencia lawyer squandered the life savings of two elderly clients.

One Orange County man stole $5 million from an 87-year-old victim.

And a Park La Brea tenant struck his 91-year-old landlord with a chair when he was refused a loan.

Stories like those motivated Helen Karr, 69, to earn a law license in 1998 and donate her services to seniors through the elder abuse unit of the San Francisco district attorney's office.

One out of every 20 people over 65 will become a victim of elder abuse, most at the hands of adult children or caregivers, according to the State Bar of California.

Officials estimate that each year, as many as 2 million older Americans become the victims of crimes such as physical and mental abuse, neglect, abandonment and financial exploitation. About 60% of the cases involve financial abuse, experts say.

"And this is why I'm on my little mission," Karr said.

Karr was managing a Fresno beauty salon almost 20 years ago when a woman in a wheelchair was brought in by her caregiver. The woman, said Karr, was dirty; the caregiver was not.

It made Karr angry.

"You shouldn't do that," Karr fumed as she recalled the scene. "You shouldn't be taking time for yourself when you're taking care of somebody and you're not keeping them very clean."

So in 1991, a year before she had planned to retire, Karr enrolled in night classes at San Francisco Law School. Four years later, she graduated, and after taking some time off for other pursuits, she eventually earned the right to practice in California.

"She does everything from legal research to writing to helping organize for special projects," said San Francisco Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane Knoles, who heads the elder abuse unit. "What motivates her? To her core, she is just absolutely committed to fighting financial elder abuse."

Prosecutors in Los Angeles, San Francisco and 24 other California counties assign at least one prosecutor full time to elder abuse cases.

As the population ages, senior citizen advocates say more and more elders will be at risk of mistreatment. There are more than 3.5 million people in California older than 65, or more than 10% of the population.

From December 2002 to May 2003, Los Angeles County received reports of 1,500 instances of abuse. More than half of those were verified.

Most reports involve multiple abuse, said Pam Smith, a program manager for the county's adult protective services department.

"The elderly are vulnerable targets, and they have money," Knoles said. "It's a lot easier to take advantage of someone who's vulnerable than to rob a bank."

It is also a lot more lucrative, said E.J. Bernacki, spokesman for the California state bar. The average bank robber makes $2,000 for each heist; elderly victims of financial crimes average $60,000 in losses, Bernacki said.

Often, victims are reluctant to come forward because they are embarrassed, said Paul Greenwood, head of California's District Attorneys Assn.'s elder abuse committee.

"I hear this directly from victims: I'm afraid if my children find out how stupid I've been with my money, they would put me in a nursing home, and I would rather lose $50,000 than wind up in a nursing home."

Calling such exploitation "heinous," Karr said victims who have worked their entire lives are left with nothing.

"They can't go out and get another job and make the money back," she said.

Born and raised in Alamosa, Colo., population 8,775, Karr became a flight attendant with a small airline in 1956 and traveled the Midwest. Four years later, she moved to Fresno with her husband, a pilot, and their three children.

When the kids began school, Karr decided to enroll at Fresno State. For the next 10 years, she took two night classes a week and worked full-time for a New York-based company that operated beauty salons in department stores.

After a divorce, Karr moved to the Bay Area in 1984. She brought with her the painful tales of abuse she had heard from clients in Fresno.

"They were just little stories, and I kept putting them in the back of my head," said Karr, who graduated from San Francisco State University.

"That was my whole thing, thinking that maybe I could be a lawyer and have an office, and I could help people who really couldn't afford an attorney."

Karr was recently appointed by Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson to the California Commission on Aging. She is also a member of the California Senior Legislative Assembly, where she is pushing for legislation to make banks report financial abuse.

There are special protections for seniors and other vulnerable adults under California's penal code, including longer sentences for people convicted of crimes against the elderly or disabled.

"It's when the Helen Karrs of the world are out there talking to [seniors] in their own language that they stand up and take notice," Bernacki said.

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