A proactive approach in Bexar County

Cyndi Jahn

Victim Assistance ­Coordinator in Bexar County and VAC Board Chair

John Warner (not his real name) couldn’t believe his ears, listening to the speaker at his monthly neighborhood association meeting. Joanne Woodruff, a prosecutor with the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s Office assigned to the Elder Fraud Unit, was describing various types of fraud perpetrated against elderly citizens. Just that day he had discovered that over the last month his 86-year-old mother had paid $34,000 to several men to paint her home. That might be acceptable if she lived in a huge house, but her small, aging, west-side home was only worth $35,000 according to the Bexar County property tax records.

    When the presentation was over, John approached Joanne and told her his story, and she immediately got him in touch with law enforcement. Their investigation showed how the group had taken advantage of Mrs. Mabel Warner (also not her real name). Mrs. Warner’s youngest son, Mark, cared for her, and he suffered from kidney problems and had to attend dialysis several times a week. The perpetrators always waited to visit Mrs. Warner whenever she was home alone, telling her that “she hadn’t paid them that week” or that she “owed them the next installment on her bill.” Mrs. Warner had no idea that she was being lied to and swindled out of her life’s savings.

    The investigation was solid; Joanne and her team moved forward with prosecution against the four men involved and not only sent them to prison (the ringleader was sentenced to eight years), but also was able to obtain the $34,000 in restitution and return it to Mrs. Warner. If John Warner had not had the opportunity to hear that presentation about elder fraud, he may have waited too long to call police, and both the money and men would be gone—or he may have written it off as a horrible mistake by his mother.

Being proactive

Prevention is not something that a prosecutor’s office usually handles. The nature of our duties is generally reactive: The crime has already been committed when we get involved. But Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Susan Reed likes to think outside the box.

    Reed has been proactive in several ways within the office. In 2004 she created the Elder Fraud Unit to not only prosecute financial crimes against the elderly, but also to provide outreach to the community to prevent this crime from occurring. The unit includes a prosecutor, victim assistant, and investigator. They generally maintain 200 open cases at any given time, and over just the last two years we have returned approximately $250,000 to 150 elderly victims.

    Prosecutor Joanne Woodruff, who wholeheartedly admits that her job is “the best prosecution job in the office,” is primarily tasked with providing this outreach to the community. Joanne believes that this aspect of her job is as important as prosecuting the perpetrators of elder fraud. She spends many hours speaking with various community and professional groups, such as physicians and home health care management organizations; senior/community groups; bankers; law enforcement; service clubs such as Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis; and neighborhood associations.

    Joanne speaks to an average of 1,700 individuals a year and also belongs to several local groups such as the Bexar County Elder Fraud Task Force (made up of law enforcement, the banking community, probate court, Adult Protective Services, and the DA’s Office). They are able to staff specific cases to determine the particular needs for each independent victim.

    When speaking to groups, one of the most important pieces of information Joanne provides is the medically documented fact that that the loss of executive function (the ability to handle financial affairs) is one of the first signs of senility or dementia in an older person. The inability to handle money occurs before someone may notice that an elderly family member is getting forgetful or is no longer able to physically care for herself. Because of Joanne’s outreach, two of our local banks have made upgrades to the security software controls on their elderly clients’ accounts to help prevent fraud.

    Whenever Joanne speaks directly to a group of senior citizens and family members, she always leaves them with something special that they can keep as a reminder of how to be safe from elder fraud and identity theft. It is a laminated placemat with a beautiful watercolor painting of the Missions of San Antonio by Brother Cletus on the front and helpful prevention information and telephone numbers on the back. Many of our local senior centers use these everyday when serving meals to the elderly.

    The combination of outreach and prosecution is a successful one that is making a difference to the elderly citizens of Bexar County. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and develop new preventive programs through outreach to your local community. The investment is well worth it!