Elder abuse cases may slip through cracks

FRESNO, Calif.

Action News first reported the arrest of Sharon Harrelson on Wednesday. But cases of alleged elder abuse are getting harder to investigate because of budget cuts.

For a scam artist, seniors walking the Fulton Mall -- or living in senior residential facilities -- may as well have bullseyes on their backs. People over the age of 65 are seen as easy targets -- trusting folks who may never be able to report a crime.

"The problem with elder abuse, physical or financial, is the obvious: our victims are dying," said Dave Case of Elder Abuse Intervention Consultants.

For 12 years, Case investigated elder abuse cases for the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County sheriff's office. Action News talked to him last year when budget cuts forced him into an early retirement.

The county's elder abuse unit once had five investigators between the sheriff's office and the police department. It's now shrunk to just two.

"Because of the reduction of units, people are going to be getting hurt more and more and they're not going to be able to get the assistance they need," Case said.

A few victims did get assistance this week when the sheriff's office arrested Sharon Harrelson on 17 felony counts. Investigators say she scammed seniors out of tens of thousands of dollars over the last two years. After getting an initial report from just one victim, detectives found more by hitting the streets.

"They came to my mother's home -- her apartment complex is a senior complex -- and they did a seminar and my mother talked to them afterwards and they said, 'We're very interested in this,'" said Michael Wyrick, whose mother believes she was scammed out of about $9,000.

But the two elder abuse investigators each have dozens of potential crimes to investigate. Case said they have to focus first on physical abuse, then on big money cases with multiple victims. Smaller crimes may slip through the cracks, he said, leaving the victims with nobody working for them.

"They're extremely frustrated," Case said. "Once it becomes personal and you're a victim, even a $100 loss for you may be the equivalent of $100,000 loss for someone else."

Case and another former investigator have launched a consulting company to fill in the gaps, hoping to make the targets harder to hit.

You can email Elder Abuse Intervention Consultants at elderabuseintervention@yahoo.com for free advice on how to proceed with any suspected elder abuse case.

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