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Center to Look Out for Elders

O.C. investigators and prosecutors targeting senior abuse will soon have a home base. Officials hope it'll lead to the creation of others.

May 11, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana will become the home of the nation's first center devoted exclusively to combating criminal abuse of the elderly, amid signs that the crime is on the rise in Orange and Riverside counties while dropping elsewhere in the state.

Funded largely by a three-year, $850,000 grant from the Archstone Foundation, a senior-advocacy group based in Long Beach, the center will focus on crimes in Orange County.

But officials said it would also serve as a resource -- and perhaps a model -- for agencies trying to battle elder abuse elsewhere. Creation of the center will be announced Monday by the 10 public and private agencies that have joined forces to create and operate it.

Dr. Laura Mosqueda, an associate professor at UC Irvine's College of Medicine and director of geriatrics at the university's medical center in Orange, is a nationally recognized expert in the field of elder abuse and was a driving force behind establishment of the Elder Abuse Forensic Center, which will be housed in offices of the county's Social Services Agency.

It will be a home base for those investigating and prosecuting crimes against people older than 65 and dependent adults with mental and physical disabilities. Officials will gather at the center to brainstorm cases Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Officials estimate that as many as 2 million older Americans annually are victims of crimes such as physical and mental abuse, neglect, abandonment, abduction and financial exploitation. About 30,000 older adults in Orange County are abused each year, county officials said.

Mosqueda, who testified before Congress in 2001 about the need for such centers, said they will go a long way toward solving the problem of coordinating the efforts of the many agency officials trying to combat crime against senior citizens.

Until now, Mosqueda said, the task of simply gathering together the social workers, doctors, police and prosecutors needed to make a criminal case has been so time consuming that "everyone forgot what we were meeting about by the time we got there."

"This is going to revolutionize our ability to deal with elder abuse by providing a centralized location linking all the necessary agencies together," said County Supervisor Chuck Smith, who coordinated Orange County's participation.

"It will be such a model for the rest of the country," said San Diego Deputy Dist. Atty. Paul Greenwood, who testified with Mosqueda before Congress. "We've come a long way in California in the last five years in terms of our approach to these cases."

Mosqueda and Greenwood said the Santa Ana center will be the nation's first.

Last year, California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer began a two-year awareness campaign focusing on elder abuse, after a public opinion poll showed only 10% of respondents ranked it as a serious social concern.

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

"This is going to become one of the major issues" for law enforcement in coming years, said Greenwood, who began in 1996 as San Diego's only prosecutor concentrating on elder abuse and now heads a staff of five. "[Seniors] continue to hold a large percent of the assets of this country. Many of them are sitting targets."

The forensic center's first case in Orange County was delivered even before the desks and computers. In late January, a disabled woman told a relative that she'd been "touched" by a bus driver who took her and other disabled adults to work.

Officials learned of the assault during an organizational meeting at the center and launched an investigation.

On Wednesday, Daniel Carlos Porras, a contract driver for the Orange County Transportation Authority, was arrested on suspicion of assaulting the disabled woman and a another woman with cerebral palsy.

The Anaheim man is accused of rape, sodomy and sexual battery, and two counts of inflicting injury upon a dependent adult, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Cazares, who will prosecute the center's cases.

The ability to quickly mobilize several agencies was the reason for the swift arrest, said Dr. Kerry Burnight, also from UCI, who will manage the center with Mosqueda.

Successful prosecution of crimes against seniors and dependent adults has been difficult, they said.

Law enforcement has generally been apprehensive about pursuing such cases because elderly and frail victims -- sometimes confused or too embarrassed to file a complaint -- are considered poor witnesses.

Greenwood said he spent the first nine months of his job visiting police stations in San Diego County to assure officers that "[the crimes] are out there; go find them and bring them to me."

He had filed 16 cases by the end of 1996. Last year, his office filed 165 cases, of which 65% involved financial crimes.

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