Experts: Elderly left vulnerable
By MAUREEN BYRNE
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001
SEMINOLE -- If a relative had not demanded to visit his elderly sister-in-law, two bodies unearthed from makeshift backyard graves last weekend may have never been discovered.
That's because the woman caring for Mary L. Saric, identified as one of the women buried in the Seminole back yard, was unaccountable to anybody.
As long as Barbara Gotsis cared for no more than two people in her home, state law did not regulate how she conducted her business. Gotsis is part of an undocumented network of untrained and unlicensed entrepreneurs who watch after some of Florida's most vulnerable citizens.
For Donna Cohen, a University of South Florida professor who specializes in aging issues, that's a tragedy.
"They should be registered," Cohen said. "I do believe in licenses because of the vulnerability of older persons. The role of government is to provide them basic protection. Two or less people in the home is not an excuse."
Cohen thinks the more supervision caregivers have, the less chance there is for someone to end up like Mrs. Saric. Had Gotsis been under the scrutiny of the state, a social worker would have knocked on her door for her home's annual inspection.
No one can say that if Gotsis had been licensed by the state that she would not have buried the two women, hid their deaths and continued collecting money for their care.
"If you don't have a way to take care of relatives and they're vulnerable, then these things can happen, and it happens because there are opportunists out there," said Bentley Lipscomb, state director of AARP in Florida.
Seniors and their loved ones may choose an unlicensed caretaker because they usually are less expensive than nursing homes or assisted-living facilities, which seniors typically don't want to enter anyway, said Dr. Sandra Reynolds, a professor in the gerontology department at USF.
Reynolds said 86 percent of seniors are cared for outside of facilities, most in the homes of kin. Family members are the most common exploiters of the elderly, Reynolds said.
"But you're taking a chance anywhere," Reynolds said. "There's more of a chance with a boarding home because of less oversight."
How the two women buried in Gotsis' back yard died is unknown. The Pinellas Medical Examiner's Office is conducting autopsies. Authorities are unable to question Gotsis, who they say is responsible for the backyard burials. Gotsis, 60, died April 22, the same day she told Anthony Saric to visit his sister-in-law, Mrs. Saric.
At first, authorities thought Gotsis died in an accident when she fell off a ladder as she tried to hang a tire swing. After the discovery of the two bodies at her home at 11488 Robert Drive, sheriff's detectives now are investigating whether she committed suicide.
Since homes with two or fewer charges do not have to register with the state, there is no way of knowing how many of these non-licensed homes exist in Florida, Lipscomb said. People who choose private homes for their elderly relatives rather than nursing homes often think they will receive more personal care, Lipscomb said.
"It's more of a homelike setting," he said.
Lipscomb said what happened to Mrs. Saric and another woman staying with Gotsis, whom authorities suspect is the other body, is a tragedy. He said it should serve as a wake-up call to the state.
"The saddest thing is the state of Florida in the year 2001 still has no long-term care system so people like them can be taken care of," Lipscomb said.
Society has changed, he said. More families are disconnected and more people are living longer. Not a good combination, Lipscomb said.
"In 1952, they conveniently died at age 75," he said. "Now, they're not. Societally, we don't have any system to take care of these people."
Lipscomb said people who do place family members in the care of non-relatives, whether it be in a non-licensed private home or a licensed nursing home, need to visit them as often as possible.
That's what Rena Stevens of Largo did in 1998 when her 98-year-old grandmother Lillian Rutkowski lived with Gotsis.
"My mother and I visited at least once a week," she said. "We were never denied access. I think the difference between our situation and this one is we were there. We were always on top of things."
Stevens said when she and her mother could no longer take care of Mrs. Rutkowski they answered an advertisement that Gotsis had placed in a newspaper.
"I was totally stunned by it," Stevens said of the story that began unfolding last weekend.
Mary Tillia, who once was married to one of Gotsis' charges, John W. Tillia, said she kept in touch with her ex-husband when he was living with Gotsis.
"When he died, they called the police like they're supposed to," Tillia said. "If we hadn't been in touch with him, I wonder what would have happened to him." Bill Foster, Anthony Saric's attorney, said Saric, 87, tried to visit his sister-in-law but Gotsis kept making excuses about why he could not see her. Saric last saw her alive a year ago, when she was 89.
Glynn, the spokesman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, said people like Anthony Saric have a place to file complaints about the care of their relatives in non-licensed homes. The toll-free state hotline to report abuse is (800) 962-2873.
"There is little that we can do about it," Glynn said. "But that doesn't preclude the person or party from working with the Department of Children and Family Services."
Sharp, who also writes a column for the St. Petersburg Times Senority section, said people need to investigate housing options now in preparation for the time they can no longer care for themselves.
"There might not be anybody looking after us," Sharp said. "Educate yourself now. Don't wait until there is a need."
- Staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report.
Victims most often are female.
The average age of victims of elderly exploitation is 77.
The victims of financial exploitation may have early cognitive or physical impairments.
The victims of exploitation may feel lonely or abandoned, so they easily build trusting relationships with caregivers.
Victims often live alone and have family living far away. They also can live in senior residential care or nursing homes.
The victims of exploitation may be dependent on the caregiver, so they suffer in silence and allow the acts to continue.
Talk to a lawyer about arrangements, such as powers of attorney for health and finances, that you can make now for possible future disability.
Get legal advice before making arrangements for someone to take care of you in exchange for your property, possessions or money.
Review your will periodically.
Don't live with a person who has a background of violent behavior or alcohol or drug abuse.
Don't sign any document unless someone you trust has reviewed it.
Don't allow anyone to keep from you the details of your finances or property management.
If you hire a caregiver, have a trusted person oversee the relationship to ensure nothing suspicious is occurring.
Try to hire a caregiver through an agency that provides referrals, such as the Area Agency on Aging. Phone: (813) 740-3888. Try not to hire a caregiver through the classified ads.
Do a background check on caregivers. If you hire a caregiver through an agency, see what the agency's background checks include. If you are not satisfied, do a criminal background check yourself.
Check a caregiver's references to make sure they are legitimate. Meet the caregiver personally.
Don't allow caregivers to become involved in financial matters. Be tight-lipped about money. If you must get someone involved in finances, make sure he or she is a certified financial planner.
Caretakers do not necessarily need to be licensed. Get a licensed social worker if you can.
-- Sources: Pinellas County sheriff's Detective Tom Clayton; Investigator Bob Clark, Pinellas County State Attorney's Office; Dr. Karl Jones; Sandra Jones, University of South Florida; AARP; National Center on Elder Abuse.
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