Harper Lee and America's silent abuse epidemic

How the author's recent history sheds light on the horrible plight facing one in 10 Americans over 60

Published February 8, 2015 3:00PM (EST)

Harper Lee       (AP/Penny Weaver)
Harper Lee (AP/Penny Weaver)

After the announcement that Harper Lee was publishing a follow-up book to "To Kill a Mockingbird," the public started asking questions: Why was this book just coming out now? Why had no one directly communicated with Lee? Why all the secrecy?

It turns out that the 88-year-old Lee, who is reportedly both deaf and mostly blind and living in a nursing home in Monroeville, Al. has been taken advantage of in the past. In 2013, Lee had filed a lawsuit against her then-agent Samuel Pinkus after he had arranged for the author to sign the copyright for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel over to his company, Veritas Media Inc. Although the suit has been settled and there is no hard evidence of misconduct surrounding Lee's affairs today, some think the situation is fishy.

Is Lee's new book being published with her full approval? It's hard to say, and entirely possible that we'll never know the full story. Regardless, elements of the celebrated author's recent history bear a striking and troubling resemblance to a little discussed problem affecting one in 10 American over the age of 60 -- elder abuse.

Salon spoke with Robert Blancato, an advocate against elder abuse, National Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition and former President of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, about the issue.

This interview has been lightly edited.

Do you have any thoughts on Harper Lee's situation?

We're a national advocacy coalition that seeks to address the broad issue of elder abuse and neglect at the national level with legislation and other activities. The part about this case that seems sort of odd at this point is that there has been apparently no direct communication from her. Everything seems to be going through the publisher or through the lawyer. They're putting words that are attributed to her over something that's very important, obviously, to her from an intellectual property perspective, which strikes people as a little odd, especially having come out of nowhere after so many years and coming after the person who had been her primary advisor passed on.

There's a lot of coincidental things that obviously could be looked at. The question is— and, as a matter of fact, I just wrote to a colleague who has been involved with Adult Protective Services in the state of Alabama for a number of years to see if anything is going on there, if there's anything that might warrant a deeper look. On the surface, there are some questions, there's no question about that.

In general, how should matters like this ideally work?

It depends on the documents that are in the individual's possession, what kind of documents did they sign, giving people certain powers and certain abilities to represent the individual. It varies from person to person. Again, I don't have all the history but my recollection is that she's in an assisted living facility and she had a stroke of some kind. I'm not sure which preceded what in the whole situation, but if there was a question about capacity, it should be known through the family, I guess, what the status of documents are with her.

There are many cases where these documents are drawn up properly, executed properly, implemented properly, and there's other times when there are circumstances that led to people making these kind of agreements under some kind of duress or lack of capacity to understand what they're doing. It's hard to speculate deeply into this without having more information at our disposal but, again, based on reports that have come out, there's just a series of very odd coincidences that would make an average person who was involved in elder abuse investigations at least look at it. That's the level we're at right now. You don't want to throw the term out, you don't want to make the accusation without a little bit more in the way of framework. That's as far as I can see on this.

When we look at elder abuse in the broad context, the issue of financial abuse is one of the more common forms of elder abuse. It basically involves someone gaining the trust of an older person and proceeding to violate that trust in one form or another. That is really the basis of what abuse is about. It's growing, and there's estimates that victims of reported financial abuse— and in the whole field of elder abuse, a lot of things are not reported— that older people can lose up to $2.9 billion a year just from financial abuse. It's not a small problem.

Would you talk about elder abuse in general? How can it look?

There are more than half a dozen different kinds of elder abuse, ranging from physical abuse to neglect to psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and, deeper down even, you have neglect and self-neglect, which is the last stage of the process, when a person is abandoned and cannot take care of themselves. The other thing to remember, and probably the most important thing is that the average victim of elder abuse, based on research, is an older woman between 75 and 80 who lives alone. Harper Lee isn't living alone, necessarily, but she is an older woman. She's actually 88...

The signs that people turn to on the physical side, bruises that suddenly appear, the ability to determine whether it's a fall or someone may have been a victim of physical abuse... if a person who supposedly has someone living with them and caring for them has extensive amounts of time on their own, that could be a signal that neglect is occurring. Somebody who has an ATM card, for example, and they're homebound and they're activity on that card, that's something to be cognizant of and be wary about. Any unusual transactions that occur from the bank need to be given a second look if it involves an older person.

Then there's the proverbial never give personal information out— social security number, bank account number, anything— to strange people, because older people have been victimized too many times by scammers. It's amazing how effective these people are. One of the growing ones that stuns many people when you hear the story is called the grandchild scam.

That happened to my friend, actually! And she became a big advocate against it.

It's crazy! I cannot in my own mind imagine that people can get duped that way if they can accept the fact that they're actually talking to a grandchild.

Would you mind explaining what it is for our readers?

The basic situation is that an older person gets a phone call from someone alleging to be their grandson or granddaughter saying, "I'm in trouble, I've been arrested, I need $3,000 to get out of jail, can you send me the money?" I guess they give some information on where to send the money and the money sometimes gets sent! It is not that person at all but someone who's able to masquerade as the grandson or granddaughter of that older person.

The telemarketers, however they do whatever they do, have this great propensity to engage older people— again, going back to the fact that if you are living alone and you get one phone call a day and that one phone call is a scammer, you could say goodbye to your whole life's savings in one phone call. That's the part that is most disturbing, the vulnerability of someone to befriend somebody who has evil intentions. Like, you won the lottery, congratulations. Here's the processing fee, send this money and you'll have your check very soon. It's not a new thing, but there are new forms almost every day, it seems.

How common is elder abuse?

The national estimates are that one out of every ten persons over the age of 60 is a victim of elder abuse, which comes out to about 6 million or so people, with the caveat that there's one study out of New York that found that for every one case that's reported there are 23 cases that go unreported. That's the highest number I've heard. Most people say one in eight cases are reported.

There are several reasons for that: one is that a lot of this abuse occurs within families. The older person is reluctant to blow the whistle on someone in their family and they just sort of let it go. There's also the general fear of getting involved in something or not knowing where to report, which is one of the issues that we, from an advocacy standpoint... We spend a lot of time saying that you can't stop what you don't report. You need to be in a situation where you can turn to somebody who can be in a situation to look into your case and make sure you're not being victimized. We also need to do a lot more in the way of educating older people about what not to do, how to avoid being in this situation.

Would you mind giving examples of advice you give?

Some of the ones I went through before are the most common ones. Don't give information out, don't deal with strangers, don't leave blank checks around your house, don't befriend people who you don't really know, don't give anybody access to your financial information or records... Just be wary. If it's a family situation, unless it's just one other person and you, if it's family that involves several generations the older person who thinks they may be victimized should at least report to somebody else in the family about it.

Sometimes in families people don't know what other family members are doing. I guess the other part is that in different communities, they form different teams of people called multidisciplinary teams that are made up of all the people who would have contact with an older person. They can all be trained to be good community representatives, educating people about how to avoid elder abuse. A lot of times, the old saying applies: if it's too good to be true, chances are that it is. That really is a framework that people should operate under.

Are there any policies in place to combat elder abuse? Is your organization working on any policies?

There was a bill passed as part of the Affordable Care Act called the Elder Justice Act, which was intended to provide dedicated money for Adult Protective Services to do more work in preventing elder abuse and investigating cases. It also gave money to long-term care Ombuds offices, which investigate cases of abuse in nursing homes. The law was passed; it's been a struggle to get the money from Congress but some of it has been released. Another thing that this legislation does is do a better job of data collection, because we don't really do a very good job of counting how many cases there really are. In this environment we're in, if you don't have good data you're not going to get dollars.

We're investing in that area, and they're doing some grants to different parts of the country to show what best practices really work in helping to fight elder abuse. A lot of those programs are going to be made into national models down the road; things like, for example, putting an Adult Protective Services worker in a health clinic so that they can help train the people who deal with older people when it comes to these outpatient-type things to be sensitive to elder abuse that might be going on and to know what to report. We have a long way to go in terms of picking up the federal commitment to elder abuse, especially compared to what we've done with child abuse over the past 40 years and what we've done with domestic violence over the past 20-some-odd years.

There's no question that this issue is getting a lot more attention. Usually, what stimulates action is when it involves somebody who's noteworthy. There were two cases you might be familiar with: one involved a very wealthy woman from New York named Brooke Astor, whose grandson went to court and filed a case against his own father and his father's lawyer contending that his father was financially abusing his grandmother. This case was pursued, prosecuted, and both the father and the lawyer were convicted, and it did a fantastic job of educating the public about what this issue is. The second case involved the now-deceased actor Mickey Rooney, who became a victim of elder financial abuse by one of his stepsons. Rather than sitting on it, he reported on it and then came to Washington and came to Congress to tell his story. I was there when he did it and it was remarkable.

If this Harper Lee thing turns out to be something, that, no doubt, will precipitate another round of people wanting to do something to make sure that it doesn't happen again. If my friend from Adult Protective Services in Alabama does get back to me with anything relevant I will pass that on to you.

By Joanna Rothkopf

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