by Ellen Cheek, Staff Attorney, Florida Senior Legal Helpline
In many ways the job of a hotline attorney is analogous to that of a medical doctor: A senior calls with a troubling symptom – say a Medicaid denial or an unmanageable debt – without knowing that the cause of the symptom is abuse, neglect, or exploitation. Meaningful relief depends upon the attorney’s accurate legal “diagnosis,” but culling the relevant facts from a convoluted narrative can be challenging over the telephone without the benefit of documents or body language. Though some clients know they have been scammed, others are less aware and know only that they are in distress. How can a hotline attorney increase the chances of identifying abuse or exploitation? Consider the following case examples, in which critical information relevant to the real legal issue was mentioned only in passing or in response to routine screening questions:
- “Guests” who overstay their welcome – Revealed in the preliminary discussion of the number of people in the client’s household and the amount of income contributed by each. In a typical case the client explains that she has opened her home or apartment to others, frequently a child or grandchild and their significant others who were down on their luck, for what was meant to be a temporary stay. During the legal interview it becomes apparent that the extended family taxes the senior’s limited budget to the breaking point. Seniors describe isolating themselves in a bedroom for privacy or peace. Many add that they no longer comment on the guest’s lack of a job or the need to move out for fear of triggering an angry or violent response.
- Inability to supply routine information regarding income and assets – Like the unwelcome guest scenario, this circumstance is usually revealed in the confirmation of income/assets at the beginning of the intake. The senior will explain that an agent with a POA or a family member/friend handles the finances; further discussion often reveals major problems, like the fact that the fiduciary has not been paying essential bills or that nest eggs have gone missing.
- Denial of public benefits based on inappropriate conveyance of real property or other assets – In many cases the senior can describe the symptom (the denied benefits), but is unaware of a common cause (an unauthorized transfer).
- Obvious coaching of the client by another, or audible contradictions of the senior’s version of events during intake – This is a frequent sign of a volatile environment and almost always requires another call to conduct a meaningful intake.
- References to challenges of living with a spouse or other companion suffering from dementia – Clients note they are unable to leave the dwelling to take care of routine tasks like food shopping or doctor’s appointments because a spouse cannot be left alone. Often, the story continues with the client describing increasingly erratic or even physically violent behavior by the spouse towards the client.
- Desire to revoke POA or to remove a name from a deed or other asset – Though a frequent request in the context of family drama, this can also indicate a senior’s desire to end an exploitative relationship.
This list is by no means exhaustive; hotline advocates will surely have identified other “red flags.” However, these illustrations are extremely common. The hotline advocate who recognizes such red flags can follow up with thoughtful questions to identify abuse, increase the victim’s awareness of the real legal problem, and help the senior seek meaningful relief.