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    Seeking justice for the elderly

    An agency at the Hillsborough County Courthouse helps the older population navigate a frustrating legal system.

    By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 6, 2002


    TAMPA -- Little by little, the old man feared, his wife was killing him.

    At night she locked him in his bedroom, stuffed garbage bags under the door and sealed the cracks with masking tape. She said she didn't want roaches to crawl out of his room while she watched TV.

    Manuel, a 70-year-old retired sanitation worker with severe breathing problems, said he endured the torment for nearly three years. He suffered through screaming, thrown lamps and telephones, even an attack with a coat hanger.

    "She about killed me," said the Tampa man, whose last name is not being used to protect his identity. "I was like a prisoner here. She had this place locked up."

    At the Hillsborough County Courthouse he found Darren Alfonso, a victim advocate with the Elder Justice Center. Alfonso suggested a domestic violence injunction against Manuel's wife and helped Manuel fill out the application.

    Manuel credits that March 2000 meeting, which resulted in an injunction against his wife, with saving his life. "I don't know how I made it. If it hadn't been for them, I think I'd be dead."

    Contending with the courthouse bureaucracy can be a discouraging ordeal for anyone. But for the elderly, it is often insurmountable. Founded in 1999, the Elder Justice Center on the second floor of the Pierce Street courthouse -- believed to be the first program of its kind in the nation -- helps the county's large senior population navigate often bewildering legal thickets.

    Intended as a quiet haven in the noisy, bustling courthouse, the Elder Justice Center keeps a cabinet of videotapes in the waiting room geared toward its clientele: Ozzie and Harriet, Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke. The elderly walk in with bloody lips and bruises, hands shaking so badly they can barely sign their names. Often they are victims of their own children or spouses, of strangers or con artists.

    None of the people interviewed for this story wanted their last names used. Some were frightened. Others were embarrassed.

    When they ask for help, many apologize for imposing.

    "They come in here a lot of times in tears," said Kimberly Muga-Russo, a victim advocate. "They can't fill out the paperwork a lot of times because of eyesight, Alzheimer's. They're frightened. They don't want to get anyone in trouble. They just want to go about the last years of their life in peace."

    The highest hurdle is often the victims themselves, particularly when their tormentors are their own blood.

    "You're dealing with Depression-era people, World War II-era people," said Alfonso, who helped start the program and worked as its sole victim advocate for three years. "They're proud people, and they do not want to ask for help. It's a big loss of dignity for them. They've got to be at their wits' end."

    * * *

    James is an 80-year-old Lutz man who gives younger women money so they'll keep him company. Last July, he needed protection from a live-in female friend who was 30 years his junior and had a mean streak when she drank.

    While drinking, she threatened to take his car and other possessions, making him fear he would "die by myself under a bridge for lack of having a place to stay," said the retired meat inspector, whose bad hip allows him to walk only short distances and with great pain.

    Workers at the Elder Justice Center helped him get an injunction against her.

    "They treated me like I was their granddaddy," he said. "They told me where to go and went with me, like a father leading a child that was blind or retarded. That's the way I felt."

    When the woman sobered up, James asked the EJC to help him have the injunction lifted. He was lonely. They advised against it.

    On a recent day, Darren Alfonso was on the phone at the EJC office, listening to James on the other end telling a long, disjointed story about other younger women he feared might be taking advantage of him. Alfonso listened for minutes in silence, and then gently said, "Can I speak to you frankly? Stop giving women money. You're a target."

    The elderly do not always make their points quickly, Alfonso noted after hanging up.

    "Everybody's always trying to rush them." said Alfonso, who was recently promoted to court administration. "Our philosophy is, give them the time they need."

    * * *

    Jim, a 72-year-old Deland man, paid $1,650 to a smooth-talking handyman for air conditioner repairs that he said were never done.

    When Jim complained to Volusia County law enforcement, they told him -- incorrectly -- that it was a civil matter. When he tried to file suit at the Volusia courthouse, they told him -- wrongly -- to do it in Hillsborough, where the handyman lived.

    That brought him to the Hillsborough courthouse, where alert clerks directed him to the EJC. With a phone call, Alfonso learned that the handyman had a lengthy record of arrests that included fraud, larceny, and dealing in stolen property, plus pending charges in several counties.

    With another call, he got assurances from Volusia prosecutors that there would be an investigation into possible criminal charges.

    "What makes (the elderly) vulnerable is, that generation grew up where their word was their bond," said Hillsborough Sheriff's deputy Joe Burt, a community officer in the retirement community of Sun City Center. "There are those that prey on people's trust."

    The EJC, run through court administration on a $188,000 annual budget, saw about 65 victims in the last year, a slight increase from the previous two years.

    Patricia, 67, of Tampa, said her pride kept her from seeking protection from her hot-tempered alcoholic son for a year and a half. But she grew terrified when he brought derelict friends to her home. It took an injunction to move him out.

    "There's something in all of us. We try to keep our dirty laundry in our dirty laundry basket," she said. "Everybody expects (one's children) to grow up and live happily ever after. You don't expect this aftermath to come back to you when you're old."

    -- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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