‘Exploiting Trust’: Minnesota’s senior citizens are financially abused by family members at alarming rate

Inside her fifth-floor St. Paul office that overlooks University Avenue, Amanda Vickstrom fields dozens of calls each month from people who are reporting suspected abuse of vulnerable adults.

As executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, the first question she asks is usually, "Who is the person taking advantage of the senior citizen?"

The answer she often gets is that it is a person they trust.

"It’s those sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table," she said.

Senior citizens in Minnesota are being financially abused and exploited at an alarming rate by their own family members. 5 INVESTIGATES analyzed court records in 232 cases involving financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult and found the suspect was related to the victim in two-thirds of all cases.

In one case, a son withdrew thousands of dollars from his aging mother’s bank account. He described his actions as an "addiction" when he admitted to family members he took the money without her consent.

"No one wants to believe that someone that you love would abuse you or take advantage of you," Vickstrom said. "It happens all the time."

Records reveal the relationships

5 INVESTIGATES’ analysis of convictions between 2013 and 2018 provide the first in-depth look at how senior citizens are exploited in Minnesota.

Victim advocates and legal experts say the true scope of the problem had previously been limited to national statistics, citing a lack of funding in this field for research.

According to national data gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice, roughly 50% of all elder exploitation cases in the United States involve family members.

However, in Minnesota, that number is closer to 69%. The defendants included sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, as well as in-laws and other distant relatives.

This graph shows the most common relationships to the vulnerable adult in the cases filed from 2013-2018

This map shows the number of cases filed in dozens of Minnesota counties

Lori Swanson is the former Minnesota attorney general. She spent two decades investigating elder abuse and exploitation in that position.

"The numbers you saw in your investigation are really consistent with my experience and national experience," Swanson said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES.

After reviewing the findings, Swanson said she believes the numbers in Minnesota more accurately portray what is going on nationwide.

"It’s not that we (in Minnesota) have more of this crime," she said. "Perhaps in other states, reporting is lagging behind and prosecutions are lagging behind. You can only discover it if reports are filed."

Swanson credits the state’s anonymous tip line for encouraging more reporting. However, elder abuse advocates still believe financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult is one of the most underreported crimes in the state. Victims often stay silent to protect their family members.

"They don’t want to get the perpetrator in trouble," Vickstrom said. "They want the abuse to stop, but they don’t want them to get in trouble."

How crimes are discovered

After a report is filed, law enforcement starts investigating financial abuse and exploitation by looking at where the senior citizen’s money is going.

This graph shows the restitution ordered each year from 2013-2018

In 2016, prosecutors in Ramsey County charged James Eugene Moon after financial records revealed he wrote more than two dozen checks out of his mother’s account. He admitted the money was used to pay his daughter’s student loans and credit card bills. The total amount taken over a period of three months was more than $450,000.

In a different case, a jury found Arthur Newberg guilty of financial exploitation in December 2015. Hennepin County prosecutors argued that Newberg would write himself checks out of his mother’s checking account and would withdraw thousands of dollars at a time from that account at the ATM.

In court documents, investigators write that Newberg admitted to other relatives that it was "like an addiction and that ‘once you start, it’s hard to stop.’"

Elder justice advocates say law enforcement often look for large purchases in bank accounts as red flags.

In 2015, Jennifer Heikkila moved her father, who had been diagnosed with dementia, to the Twin Cities to help care for him. But investigators in Hennepin County reviewed financial evidence that showed Heikkila spent thousands of dollars of her father’s money on horseback riding, yoga school and a new pickup truck.

In an email to other family members, her husband claimed that "Dad knew and approved of" the purchases, later writing in reference to the expenses, "he gave us the gift of money and we gave him the gift of our time."

"It’s their way of justifying illegal and immoral and terrible behavior," Swanson said.

After nearly 20 years of reviewing cases of elder abuse and exploitation, Swanson said she has learned it’s also important for law enforcement to look at where money is not being spent.

In Duluth, police received a tip after Rudolph Monson’s mother had the gas shut off to her house. Prosecutors in St. Louis County charged Monson with exploitation in 2017 after investigators found he used her money to pay his own bills and took his family on a trip to Disney World. Meanwhile, investigators said, the 88-year-old was forced to go to the food shelf.

"It’s stealing," Swanson said. "It’s theft. It ought to be prosecuted, and the people who are doing it ought to be held accountable."

In each case, the family members were convicted of felony financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult. Multiple calls and messages to their attorneys seeking comment were not returned.

Prosecuting a ‘family matter’

5 INVESTIGATES’ analysis of court records shows convicting someone of financial exploitation is a challenge for prosecutors.

Only 5% of family members convicted of exploitation between 2013 and 2018 were sentenced to prison.

During his tenure as Anoka County Attorney, Tony Palumbo has aggressively pursued elder abuse and exploitation cases and says cases involving family members are particularly difficult.

"It is, in a sense, a family matter, and when does it cross over to a criminal matter?" Palumbo said in an interview. "We have to prove to 12 good citizens beyond a reasonable doubt that indeed this was a crime and not a gift by Mom and Dad."

What you can do

Advocates who work with victims and who handle criminal cases of financial abuse and exploitation said there are warning signs that typically point to a larger issue.

"When you see a change of emotion, if you see isolation being done by family members, those are red flags," Palumbo said.

As county attorney, Palumbo regularly puts on presentations to senior citizen groups on this topic. He said three questions can help reveal what’s going on.

"You can be a best friend to that person by asking them: Is anyone taking your money without your permission? Is anyone hurting you? Are you afraid of anyone?" he said.

Swanson suggested taking more proactive measures with older adults in the family.

"Just the act of asking to see the checkbook or looking at the bank statements can help uncover it," Swanson said. "When they are detected and stopped, it’s because somebody came forward."

In Minnesota, you can report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation anonymously by calling the statewide hotline at 1-844-880-1574.

Kirsten Swanson can be reached by phone at 651-642-4406 or by email here.