Every year more than 9,000 cases of elder abuse are reported in San Diego County and data shows the crime is often underreported and difficult to fight in court, leaving a majority of cases "open" investigations.
Experts said those numbers are likely much higher but elder abuse crimes often go unreported leaving victims in distressing, potentially deadly situations. The San Diego Police Department Elder Abuse Unit reports on its website that one out of twenty elders will be a victim of abuse in their lifetime.
Elder abuse can include physical assault as well as financial crime against people ages 65 and older. It is often carried out by an victim's caretakers, costly nursing homes, or sometimes the victim's own children.
After obtaining documents from a public records request, NBC 7 Investigates discovered the majority of the reported cases of elder abuse remain "open" in the city of San Diego.
In 2018, caregiver William Sutton, 68, was found guilty of elderly abuse and murder. The incident, caught on video, showed a 94-year-old woman pushed through a screen door, resulting in Margaret Wood's death.
At the time, Sutton was caring for Wood's elderly best friend, Marian Kubic. Following the incident, Kubic's daughter, Reggie Brown, told NBC 7, "Don't discount anything ever. If there's a red flag -- even a yellow flag -- follow it."
Attorney Natalie Holm, who specializes in elder abuse cases, said that was good advice.
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"This is not a declining problem. If anything, it's going to increase," Holm said. "The aging population is going to double by 2025. The number of elderly persons in long term care facilities is going to double by 2030."
More than 4,740 cases of elder abuse were reported to the San Diego Police Department since 2010.
Records show that of those, over 2,400 cases involve theft from an elderly person; just over 2,000 involve abuse or cruelty of an elderly person, in some cases resulting in death.
Data reveals the majority of the cases of elder abuse reported since 2010 are classified as open investigations.
"Generally speaking, elderly people don't make the best witnesses. They perhaps have some level of dementia or memory impairment. And frequently it's a 'he said, she said' situation," Holm said. So it becomes very difficult to present those cases when you don't have any hard and fast evidence."
Still, Holm said abuse often escalates if there is no intervention.
Victims can be worried about retaliation from their abusers. Some try to protect abusive family members or are too ashamed to admit they've become a victim themselves — all the reasons why loved ones need to be observant and vocal.
"Don't be afraid to make your loved one's needs known. And don't be afraid to make waves because a lot of times you're intimidated by the system. You think that this is just how it's supposed to be. But if it doesn't seem right. Trust your gut. Because usually, it's not," Holm added.
If you believe elder or dependent abuse is occurring, call Adult Protective Services at 1-800-510-2020, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you're outside the County of San Diego, call 1-800-339-4661.