With Elder Abuse Awareness Day being recognized on June 15, we reflect on how the last several years have been particularly devastating to older adults in Allegheny County. Conditions created by the pandemic health crisis have killed more seniors than any other age group. Additionally, it created an environment in which people have often felt abandoned, isolated and locked away from the rest of society. Unfortunately, this made our vulnerable elderly population an easy target for criminals.

The State Supreme Court created a task force to examine the problem of elder abuse and has come up with an action plan to prevent, prosecute and punish criminals who victimize the elders of our community. The Senior Justice Advocacy Program, which I chair, was developed out of that committee and is one of our special victims’ units. Protecting victims of domestic violence, sex crimes and child abuse, and prosecuting the accused criminals in those cases, has provided a valuable foundation for developing an approach that has brought together the courts, law enforcement and social service providers to better serve the special needs of older adults in our region.

The thousands of trials and convictions made to date have shown us how to best organize a prosecution that brings the criminal to justice and justice to the victims, despite procedures that sometimes seem to favor the accused rather than the victims. A unique aspect of our senior justice effort is the ability of seniors to network and communicate among themselves in order to share their experiences and other information. Publications like Pittsburgh Senior News and our Fraud Squad Alerts provide valuable communication tools in the battle to prevent senior abuse.

A word of caution here: beware of statistics that quote percentages about decreasing crime rates and how things are improving. Managing and reporting statistics does not solve and prevent the problem. Our work in the Senior Justice Advocacy Program deals with real people, not numbers. Every victim we help has a name, family and friends who have suffered devastating (and in most instances, irreparable) loss.

We’ve prevented more than $30 million in financial loss and theft by helping approximately 65,000 county residents ages 60 and older. We teach them how to protect themselves by not falling prey to con artists and scammers, as well as how to not be afraid to speak up and report physical and suspected physical abuse – which most often happens from someone they know and trust.

Thank you to those whom we trust who make it their mission to raise awareness every day regarding abuse that threatens the health, safety and finances of our older population. We are grateful for those in law enforcement, the assistant district attorneys and the courts for their swift and fair prosecution, and for bringing justice in all matters related to seniors.

The ultimate goal is to protect and defend the lives, liberty and happiness of our most vulnerable. Let us all continue to work together to take care of one another, and if you feel isolated at this time, please know that you are not alone.

Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.
Allegheny County District Attorney