There were dolls and boxes, newspapers and brochures, books and mail piled throughout the house. In places, the piles were 2½ feet tall and blocked pathways.
“It’s probably the worst I’ve been in,” Salt Lake City police Detective Michael Hardin told a judge earlier this year. Even if Geneil Larsen wanted to get out of the chair where her son said she spent the last few weeks of her life, “There was no way she could move around.”
Larsen, 74, was covered in urine and feces when police found her. And according to court documents, her skin had begun to break down and a pressure ulcer, which exposed muscle and bone, had formed on her lower back, causing her death.
For prosecutors, the felony case pending against Larsen’s son and caretaker, 52-year-old Bradley Myers, is an extreme example of a problem they expect to see more often in Utah courts.
“These cases exist,” said Greg Ferbrache, who prosecuted elder abuse cases for about five years while working for the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office. “Whether or not we respond and how we respond is up to the community.”
Along the Wasatch Front, police and prosecutors believe new training efforts will help identify and expose abuse, neglect and exploitation of a vulnerable and growing percentage of the population. Last year, Adult Protective Services and the Salt Lake City Police Department were awarded a $400,000 grant aimed at improving the understanding and response to elder abuse and exploitation. And last month, the Provo Police Department received a $400,000 grant of its own to improve response to crimes against adults over the age of 65.
Salt Lake Police Sgt. Michelle Ross contrasts the resources available to elder abuse victims to those available to victims of child abuse and domestic violence.
“There’s a whole gamut of networks to care for that child,” she said. “In the domestic violence circle it’s the same thing. With victims of elder abuse, there is very little that’s been done in that area. I think it’s something that is coming to light more. But right now the network to catch that isn’t there.”
Ross, the Salt Lake Elder Abuse Project coordinator, said about 60 police officers from around the county have received training since last year to help with interviewing victims, looking for signs of abuse or exploitation, and finding resources.
“That’s where the experience comes in,” Ferbrache said.
The number of Adult Protective Services investigations has increased over the past five years — up from 2,149 in 2007 to 3,242 in 2011. And APS Director Nan Mendenhall said only about one in 10 cases of elder abuse or exploitation are actually reported to authorities.
“The number is much larger than most people want to realize,” she said.
As the state’s elderly population increases — boosted by improved health care and the sheer number of baby boomers — Mendenhall said she expects to see more cases in Utah courtrooms.
“When anything used to happen with a senior and the perpetrator was a family member, it was viewed as a civil matter,” she said. “They’re really starting to realize it’s not civil. We’re seeing a lot more interest in pursuing the criminal aspect.”
To report allegations of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation call Adult Protective Services. In Salt Lake County, call 801-538-3567. For all other counties, call 1-800-371-7897.