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Agencies aim to open center to combat elder abuse to Fargo-Moorhead area

FARGO -- Several agencies want to open an elder abuse center in the Fargo-Moorhead area that would allow better collaboration while investigating cases of neglect, financial exploitation and physical and sexual abuse of aging residents.

More cases of elder abuse are coming to light as the population ages and stakeholders recognize the signs of elder abuse, and better coordination is needed, said Shelly Carlson, who leads the task force looking into a center.

While it's still in the preliminary stages, the abuse center will be modeled after the existing Red River Children's Advocacy Center, where groups team up to help the youngest crime victims, Carlson said.

The Children's Advocacy Center has operated out of its downtown Fargo office building since 2006, and represents a multi-disciplinary approach to child abuse cases. Medical professionals, social workers, law enforcement and prosecutors all operate under one roof.

That's the same concept behind a potential elder abuse center, Carlson said. There are only a few similar elder centers nationwide.

Carlson said the task force, which includes representatives from law enforcement, social services, senior service organizations and health providers, is seeking funding and a location. Plans are to hire a director and open a center by next fall.

Carlson said the collaborative process will allow advocates "to really get an understanding of what is going on in that victim's life."

Medical professionals such as a neuropsychologist and geriatrician, who specialize in aging patients, can help social workers and police officers determine if abuse or neglect has occurred.

Using bed sores as an example, Carlson said doctors can help determine whether an elderly person's bed sores are naturally occurring or the result of intentional neglect.

In the past four years, elder abuse has been an area of collaboration for law enforcement and agencies throughout the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The Clay County Attorney's Office received a $290,000 U.S. Department of Justice training grant for law enforcement officers in October 2009. A similar grant will provide elder abuse training to all law enforcement in Cass County at the end of this month, Carlson said.

Cass County prosecutors and Fargo police also announced a partnership this fall to devote more attention to elder abuse cases.

The center will help address the complexities of elder abuse cases, said Fargo police Detective Leo Rognlin, who handles such cases.

Rognlin said a crime only occurs when someone intentionally neglects or inflicts harm. Many times, those who are victimizing an elder just don't understand the individual's needs.

"In some cases, there may not be a crime, but one of the other local services can help people out," he said.

Like many domestic violence cases, elder abuse victims have a hard time coming forward because they have a relationship with the perpetrator, Rognlin said.

Among of the challenges are the number of issues going on at once - neglect, financial exploitation and physical and sexual abuse may be occurring, he said.

"Many times there's more than one crime," he said.

Clay County Assistant State's Attorney Lori Conroy, who is on the task force, prosecutes elder abuse and exploitation cases.

"Everyone has to keep in mind ... what exactly is justice?" she said.

In some cases, Conroy said criminal charges are not the right answer and making changes - such as switching a power of attorney - can be a better solution.

"We owe a duty to protect those people in our society that can't always protect themselves - children, the elderly," she said.