To combat the more than 20,000 annual reports of abuse of adults over age 60 and younger adults with disabilities, the Illinois Senate by Joint Resolution 13 has created a newly appointed Elder Abuse Task Force. The Task Force will work with the Department on Aging to analyze the effectiveness of adult protective services in Illinois and to create strategies to prevent abuse and provide robust services to the older individuals and adults with disabilities.
Legal Aid Chicago’s own Supervisory Attorney Michelle Weinberg joins this task force with 18 years of experience in Legal Aid Chicago’s Consumer Practice Group and over 27 years in consumer litigation. As an attorney at Legal Aid Chicago, Michelle has advocated for senior citizens’ rights in cases of home repair fraud, predatory lending, foreclosure defense, car dealer and all other manner of consumer fraud.
“In the senior population, consumer fraud and financial abuse is huge,” Michelle said. “I’ve been fighting financial abuse for many years, but recently my work has shifted from what I’d refer to as commercial financial abuse, such as predatory lending, to caregiver and family abuse, which can be much more challenging to detect and collect.”
An example of this type of elder abuse comes from Michelle’s client, Maura. Maura immigrated to the United States many years ago and never learned to read or write in her native tongue or in English. Thirty years ago, she purchased a family home, with the assistance of her daughter and brother-in-law. Maura’s son Dirk, then a young man, moved in with the rest of the family, and over the years, he began to assist with household finances. When he was her only child living in the home, Maura decided to put Dirk’s name on the title as a joint tenant, in recognition of his support.
In 2009, after they paid off the last mortgage, Dirk told Maura they should “put the house in trust,” and took Maura to an attorney to have her sign papers. Dirk said this would protect them (both) from possibly losing the home. Unbeknownst to Maura, she signed over title to her son, making him the sole owner. He continued to maintain the charade until 2017, when Dirk suddenly demanded rent from Maura, because she was living in “his” house. When she refused to pay rent on her own home, he filed an eviction and embarked on a campaign of harassment.
“He cut wires for her air conditioner in summer, and in the winter after she shoveled her snow, he pushed snow onto her steps,” Michelle said. “He chopped up her patio furniture with a chain-saw!”
In Maura’s case, after a four-day bench trial, Michelle was able to get the fraudulent document voided, on the grounds that Maura did not have a reasonable opportunity to understand the nature of the document that she was signing, also known as “fraud in the factum.”
“I’ve been fighting financial abuse with Legal Aid Chicago for many years, Michelle said. “This new task force will be bringing together experts from various organizations that work to tackle elder abuse, to create best practices and policies that address current issues and prevent future elder abuse.”
Maura was able to testify about what happened to her, but there are other cases where victims are unable to speak up for themselves due to illness or disability. There are isolated seniors who are dependent on the abuser or face other barriers to services. Legal Aid Chicago has worked for years to prevent predatory practices targeting the elderly, and now with Michelle working closely with the Elder Abuse Task Force, the state has the opportunity to improve ways to root out abuse at all levels and provide resources to older adults and their families.
Task Force members, throughout Illinois, will begin meeting on August 29th, 2019.