This October, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office celebrates eight years and $35 million worth of fraud prevention through its Senior Justice Advocacy Program. In partnership with the Center for Victims, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. hosted a Senior Justice Forum on Friday, Oct. 6 to commemorate the continued success of the program.
The forum featured a panel of speakers from the District Attorney’s Senior Justice Task Force, Assistant District Attorney Julie Capone, Senior Justice Advocate Dick Skrinjar and Center for Victim’s Older Adult Services Supervisor Anita White.
“We’ve led this commonwealth and learned from the experiences of those we talk to,” said DA Zappala. “Our senior justice advocates have carried out plans and initiatives better than anyone in Pennsylvania.”
After participating in a state-wide task force that resulted in the development of an advisory council to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, DA Zappala created and implemented the Senior Justice Advocacy Program in Allegheny County in 2015. The program is specifically designed to combat the rise of crimes against older adults, which include acts of fraud, scams and abuse.
“The persons that we’ve met with face to face over the past eight years, have learned our priority, and together, the community’s priority is their safety, their health and their finances,” said DA Zappala. “Collectively, we have saved senior citizens over $35 million during the course of this program. That’s how often seniors are targeted for financial elder abuse.”
Allegheny County serves a population of over 1.2 million people with nearly 33% over age 60 (roughly 300,000 citizens). The Senior Justice division of the DA’s Office has helped make the experiences for these people at the courthouse more inclusive and accessible by providing transportation to and from the court, along with ensuring courtrooms are equipped with technology for the hearing impaired and the accessibility for a wheelchair.
“It’s a very scary process to come to the courthouse,” said Capone, who oversees the elder abuse division of the DA’s Office. “[Older adults] have already been victimized and are traumatized by what has happened to them. We try to make the process as least stressful for the person as possible.”
One of the most significant issues that the older adult population faces is the reluctance to press charges. Oftentimes, older adults prefer to keep their misfortunes to themselves out of embarrassment or fear of getting someone in trouble.
“This is especially common in cases that involve a relative stealing or abusing the older person,” said DA Zappala. “Victims have nothing to be ashamed of and our victim’s advocates have done a great job in making sure that people understand that.”
Advocates are able to encourage victims’ confidence by assuring them they are not alone through any step of the justice process and that others have dealt with similar situations.
“As advocates, once a victim gets to the courthouse, we meet them there,” said White. “We stay with them through their trials. We talk to them and inform them of what is going on in the courtroom and in the system. Educating them is empowering them.
Skrinjar left the audience with a lasting impression by reminding them of the rights a suspected criminal receives when placed under arrest. The victim, however, is never notified of the rights they have.
“The senior justice program that the District Attorney has put together is a way to balance out the rights of victims versus the rights of the accused,” said Skrinjar. “It’s our attempt to help senior victims navigate a really, really tricky, intricate system of justice.”
Job one continues to be protecting the safety and preventing crimes against seniors. Older adults are a vulnerable target for criminals and we continuously work to protect and defend the rights and safety of our 60+ community.