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Corrupt Care: Natrona County DA Assails Exploiters Of Vulnerable Adults

Universal Images Group, Getty Images
Universal Images Group, Getty Images

There are thieves.

And then there are thieves posing as caregivers who exploit and steal the savings of the elderly and disabled, Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said.

“There’s a certain edge to these that make them a little more contemptible than the guy who takes the McDonald’s deposit bag at work,” Blonigen said.

“It’s really kind of a horrible crime,” he said. “You take people at their most vulnerable and you exploit them, and that’s one of the thing that’s so ugly.”

Natrona County District Court was the scene for two examples of such ugliness this week.

Tuesday, Tamara Voelker pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $50,000 from an 89-year-old man who has increasing dementia. A sentencing date has not been set. Voelker could face up to 10 years of imprisonment and pay up to a $10,000 fine. She also will pay restitution.

Wednesday, Donna Anderson was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay $500 a month to her brother, who is on Social Security Disability, until she has compensated him the $27,879.16 she stole from him from December 2014 to December 2015.

The Natrona County District Attorney’s Office handles about six to eight exploitation cases a year, but he said these crimes are under-reported. The Wyoming law is well-written, but it’s not being enforced as much as it should be, he said.

The victims often are those who have saved over their lifetimes, lived frugally, amassed retirement accounts, and took responsibility for their lives, especially those who survived the Great Depression, Blonigen said.

But the elderly and those suffering from dementia or developmental disabilities often are not able to make decisions about their money and others take advantage of that, Blonigen said.

“They do not want to become a burden to other people,” he said. “If anything, they want to leave a little something to those folks they love. It’s very important to them.”

Sometimes, victims are ashamed to report exploitation because the caregiver may be the only person helping them, or they are embarrassed to think someone they trusted stole from them, Blonigen said.

“The other one is fear that, ‘my family or whomever will put me in a “home,'” he said. “There’s a real fear of that. They want to live independently, even though they’re having problems.”

On the caregiving side, most of those who care for vulnerable adults are responsible, he said.

But those who exploit them do more than just steal. They are deliberate, methodical, cunning, remorseless and clueless about accepting responsibility.

Often it’s not just for what they buy, either, Blonigen said.

“We’re finding a disturbing trend emerging, where individuals who have substantial addiction problems are signing on as ‘caretakers,'” he said. “They’re stealing our elders’ money for drugs and stealing their medications and they’re basically using them as an open checkbook.”

Addicts, especially those who use pain-killing narcotics, aren’t able to hold jobs and they look for money and find vulnerable adults are easy marks, he said.

In fact, some of those named in the case of Dr. Shakeel Kahn are prescription drug abusers and caretakers for elderly adults, Blonigen said. Kahn, who practiced medicine in Casper, is awaiting trial in federal court for running a multi-state conspiracy of distributing vast amounts of oxycodone and other narcotics.

Besides addiction issues, defendants usually express no remorse and make excuses, Blonigen said. “You heard it today from Tamara Voelker: ‘He (the victim) was giving me gifts.'”

Those who exploit vulnerable adults sometimes have positions of trust, such as the wait-person who serves the adult at a restaurant or a nurse.

And sometimes they just arrive with no apparent connection to the victim, Blonigen said.

In the case of Voelker, Blonigen said her victim told investigators, “‘she just kind of showed up and started working her way into my life,'” he said.

“Yeah, it’s a little fuzzy where Tamara came from.”

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Mike Blonigen offered these tips for financial care for vulnerable adults and what to look for if you suspect exploitation:

  • If a family has someone who may be vulnerable, they should have a trusted family member to hold a joint account. That’s relatively easy to track with online banking.
  • If you use direct-pay for bills, you can determine if money is being spent on things that probably aren’t for the vulnerable adult.
  • Discuss finances openly.
  • Question caretakers if financial activity seems out of line.
  • Do not be shy or ashamed about reporting questionable financial activity.
  • Find out as much as you can about caretakers, including asking about criminal history.

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