Tales of My Mother #11
The last decade of my mother's life, she could barely walk and barely see. Increasingly, she became reliant on a succession of paid caregivers. I could and did drive her to doctor appointments but she felt mounting guilt every time she took me away from my life to do her marketing or drive her to get her hair cut or toenails clipped. There were also tasks a son just plain couldn't help her with…like showering.
So we started hiring women from a caregiver agency. For a time, the biggest problem was that the women didn't stick around long. They all loved my mother. They just didn't seem to like caregiving. It's hard, often less-than-pleasant work. It pays a low hourly rate. And in the sampling we had, it seemed to attract folks who couldn't get the job they really wanted in life, were only caregiving until they could…and resented that they were bathing old people instead of pursuing that yearned-for occupation. There were exceptions — a few who seemed to find the work fulfilling and did it well — but they were, make no mistake about it, exceptions.
Sadly, even the exceptions were transitory and we always seemed to be "breaking in" a new one…or waiting for the agency to find us a new one. Many of their caregivers wouldn't work in a "smoking home" and my mother had yet to break her addiction to Marlboros.
Two things I did not do: Even during the periods when we were desperate for the agency to find us a new caregiver, I did not call another agency. This one had been highly recommended and the people there seemed very nice and responsible. And I did not hire one of several former caregivers — women who'd tended to my mother, then left that agency — who contacted me directly offering their services. They all said something like, "I wasn't making enough working through that agency. But if you paid me the same amount directly and they weren't taking their cut…"
I said no to these offers for two reasons. One was that it seemed unethical. These women had all signed a contract with the agency that they wouldn't do this…and I believe I may have signed one myself that I wouldn't hire them on such a basis. Also, the agency was "licensed and bonded" (remember the second part of that phrase) and a freelance caregiver would not be. So we waited. I had one friend who could fill in now and then helping my mother…and sooner or later, the agency would come up with someone.
"Someone" last year was a woman I'll call Lucy. She was a large woman who claimed (I'm not sure I believe this) that her son was a starting player for the New York Jets. She was caregiving, she said, because her kids had all grown and moved away. She missed taking care of a person in need and she herself was a person in need…of money. For a time, she was more than adequate in the job.
As I mentioned here before, I was supervising my mother's finances. I would eventually take over everything but at this point, she still had her credit card and her checkbook. Every now and then, I'd log into "her" account on her bank's website and check balances and transfer funds between her several accounts. One night around 2 AM, I logged in and chanced to notice something I should have spotted a few weeks earlier.
Most of the charges on my mother's credit card were to markets, primarily the Ralphs near her home. I noticed that for some time, they'd fallen into an unusual pattern. There would be a charge of $20-$40 and then the same date, there'd be a larger one, always for more than $200. My mother did not need $200+ worth of groceries per week. The lesser expenditure was about right.
I immediately called the bank and froze the credit card. My name was on all her accounts so I could do things like this. The next morning, I asked my mother how her marketing had been handled lately. It was pretty much what I expected…
"I give Lucy a list of what I need and I give her my credit card and send her to Ralphs. Or sometimes, she takes me there."
I asked, "When she takes you there, who handles your credit card? And does she also buy things for herself?"
"Yes, she sometimes does her marketing at the same time. I'm in the wheelchair so I give her my credit card and she runs it through the machine there, then she hands it back to me."
"Are you certain she's not charging her purchases to yours at the same time?"
My mother thought for a moment then said, sadly, "No, I guess I'm not." By now, she'd figured out what this was all about.
I called the agency and had them suspend Lucy's visits. Then I drove over to the Ralphs where most of the mysterious transactions had occurred. I explained the situation to the manager there and showed her that I had a duplicate of my mother's card with my name on it. Based on that, she arranged for the market's accountant to give me a printout of all the charges to that card that had been posted since Lucy began working for us.
I picked it up later the same day and sat in my car in the parking lot, studying it. Lucy had refrained from skullduggery for the first few months of her employment, then started small. I already knew that from the data on the bank's website. Now, I saw that all the large, questionable charges were time-stamped one minute or so after the smaller, probably-legitimate ones.
The charges were all itemized. The purchases charged in the smaller transactions were all things I knew my mother used — her favorite brand of cookies, her favorite fruits, her brand of cigarettes, etc. The larger charges were for items she didn't use…a lot of coffee and non-dairy creamer, and each of the larger transactions included a $100 or $200 gift card.
And I noticed something else interesting: Listed alongside each charge was the number of the Ralphs Reward Card that had been used. There was one number on all the small transactions and a different number on all the large transactions.
I went back into the market and bought a bottle of water. At the counter, I lied to the checker. I told her, "I don't have my Ralphs Reward Card with me. Can I just give you my phone number?" She said sure…so I gave her Lucy's phone number. She keyed it in, I paid for the water and she handed me a receipt. The receipt had on it the number of the Ralphs Rewards Card that had been used and it was the same number attached to all the larger transactions.
Then I went over to my mother's and checked the number of her Ralphs Rewards Card. It was the number attached to all the smaller transactions.
Many years ago, I was briefly a writer on a TV series about an investigator named MacGyver. This was the first time I ever felt like him.
The agency fired Lucy, who tearfully swore she'd never done what I'd concluded she'd done. "I would never steal from your mother, Mark," she sobbed to me on the phone. "I love your mother." It was a pretty convincing performance and for about three seconds, I had to wonder if there wasn't some other explanation. Then I looked again at the evidence I'd compiled and went to the police.
This involved several phone calls and several visits there and waiting around for a long time on each of the visits. I had printed out packets of the bank records and the Ralphs data and had it all neatly charted and graphed and annotated. Every officer and detective who paged through it was impressed with how complete it was…and how airtight. "We rarely have someone come in and hand us an open-and-shut case like this," one said. He noted that the Ralphs Reward Card numbers alone were pretty solid proof that the larger transactions had been for Lucy's purchases, not my mother's. It would also be a pretty simple matter to trace the gift cards and see who redeemed them.
Alas, he also told me how overwhelmed and understaffed they were: "We have hundreds of these cases already open. And to be quite honest with you, yours is going to the bottom of the pile. Your mother is not out on the street. She's not going to miss a meal. She has you. Yes, a few thousand dollars is a lot of money but we have cases where someone who is alone in the world was screwed out of their life's savings and is now homeless."
I told him I understood all that but I had two concerns. One was that Lucy had to figure I was going to the cops. The agency, to justify the firing, had shown her how much evidence I'd collected and forwarded to them. How likely was it that she wasn't currently packing to move and disappear? Also, I noted, "My mother is 90 years old and in poor health. She's quite upset about this and would like to see some justice before she dies."
The detective promised he would do what he could. So did a lady at the city's Elder Abuse Department which was one of many other agencies I contacted. She reiterated for me how shorthanded the police were to deal with matters like this. "They could use another ten men over there," she said. "Unfortunately, the same people who complain that the police don't solve enough crimes are also dead set against paying a fraction of a penny more in taxes, which is all it would take to hire those ten men." Her division was being cut back, too.
So we waited. And waited. And in the meantime, the agency tried to find us a new caregiver. "This has never happened to us before," they told me over and over. "We've never had a caregiver caught stealing from a client." I didn't necessarily believe that but I supposed the significant word in that claim was "caught." If my mother hadn't had me monitoring her accounts, she'd never have known.
Finally, they found us a new caregiver who came with impeccable credentials. We'll call her Ethel. She was a short, portly nursing student who'd worked for many satisfied customers through this agency. She seemed nice enough and I figured she was honest. Even if she wasn't, she'd been told about how I watched my mother's financial affairs and how the police would soon be hauling her predecessor off to the pokey. So you figure that she'd at least know she wouldn't be able to get away with anything.
Yeah, you'd figure that, wouldn't you?
She didn't do anything for a few months. Then one night, again around 2 AM, I went online to check my mother's account and found three very wrong checks totaling $1,280. This bank lets you view a scan of a cashed check online and I could see that they were made out to Ethel and not by my mother. In the last few days, someone making no attempt whatsoever to imitate my mother's handwriting had filled them out, signing her name. I then checked the data on my mother's (new) Visa card and found about a thousand dollars in recent charges to two cell phone companies — SimpleMobile and Sprint. My mother did have a cell phone but not from either of those firms.
By 2:15 AM, I had the checking account closed and the credit card frozen. The next morning, Ethel was fired by the agency. She admitted to cashing the checks but swore that my mother had made them out. "She had me buy some things she needed and she was just paying me back for what I spent." That was her story but she somehow couldn't remember even one of the items she'd purchased for my mother a week before for a total of $1,280. She also insisted she didn't know a thing about any credit card charges.
At this point, I took my mother's checkbook away from her. I noted that Ethel had filled out checks #542, #543 and #547. #544 was a real one — my mother paying her gardener — and #545 and #546 were missing and have not been seen since. #549 and those that followed were still there except that one entire pad of blanks — checks #641-670 — were missing from her desk drawer. They were also now useless since I'd closed that account.
I made up another report and took it to the same detective at the L.A.P.D. He thought the sequel was even better than the original. There was no progress yet on the Lucy matter — we were still situated near the bottom of that pile — and now the Ethel matter would be keeping it company down there.
"Forgive me for questioning procedure here," I said to the detective. "But it would seem like with all the paperwork I've supplied you, it's just a matter of having an officer or two go to these womens' homes — you have their addresses from the agency — and bringing them in or at least letting them know they're under investigation. The evidence is so airtight that one or both might just confess or plea bargain or something."
"There's about a 90% probability it would go just like that," he replied. "But there are still a lot of cases ahead of you."
I thought I'd caught everything Ethel had done but she had one more surprise for me. My mother's prescription renewals were done online. I ordered, they were mailed to her and then I would go over each week and put the proper pills into one of these things…
Sometimes, I had to use two of them. My mother took a lot of medication. There were times when the Walgreen's over on Pico had fewer pills in it than were in my mother.
The week after the Ethel caper had come to light, my mother told me she had not received my most recent order and I knew we were close to running out of some capsules. I called the pharmacy and they assured me the order had been sent. When the pills didn't arrive a few days later, I drove over and picked up another supply. Then a day or two later, my mother casually mentioned to me that not only had she never received those pills, she hadn't had any mail at all in the last two weeks or so. That was when the light went on!
I checked with her post office. It turned out that the same day Ethel had written those bogus checks, someone (gee, I wonder who) had gone online and filled out the form to halt my mother's mail delivery indefinitely.
One can only guess what was on Ethel's mind. She'd been told I watched over my mother's finances. She might have noticed my mother never had bank statements around. (Since I did my supervision online, it was all paperless.) Still, I can only suppose she didn't ponder any of this; just thought that the checks would not have been noticed if my mother wasn't receiving her mail. Or maybe it was all being masterminded by a friend of hers who didn't know all that Ethel should have known.
I contacted the U.S. Postal Inspectors who told me stopping someone else's mail is a crime. I don't know why they then make it so easy to do but it's a crime. They have, they said, a record of the IP address of every computer from which a request of that nature was received and that might be handy when the mail-stopper does his or her mail-stopping on his or her own computer. In any case, they would certainly look into this allegation, they said…and then I believe it went to the bottom of another very large pile.
It's important that I emphasize something: Everyone I dealt with in law enforcement or related agencies (I spoke to many not mentioned here) was professional and dedicated and eager to help…and doing a job that should have been spread out among at least a half-dozen other employees. One lawyer for the city told me something and I'm going to try to replicate it here from memory. This is the essence of what he said if not the precise words…
Every single division of law enforcement in L.A. is shamefully and seriously understaffed. Every one. If there's a job that needs twenty people to do it efficiently, we have to do it with three. We should spend a lot more money in this city on law enforcement but we don't. The voters would have to get behind that and they all assume that if they call and say "A man with a gun is breaking into my house," we'll find a black-and-white unit to be there within minutes…and usually though not always, that's true. So all people think of when you say we need more money for police is "Uh-oh. Higher taxes and more meter maids to give me a ticket when I'm two minutes late getting back to my car." And they vote no and later, when they need us to handle something like your matters, they get mad at us that we can't jump right on it like the cops on TV do.
You see the problem for yourself here. You walked in with overwhelming evidence of guilt on the part of these two caregivers. If I were the prosecuting attorney, I could get a conviction in two seconds with my eyes closed. But we can't spare the manpower to even go out and arrest those people. They may be working for someone else right now, doing the same things. They probably figure they got away with it the last time so why not try it again with someone else?
As it turned out, the police still have not gotten around to acting on our two complaints and as you know, my mother passed away last October. I am now told this makes one of the two cases more difficult to prosecute…so it's probably moving even farther down in the pile. The other one, they say, will not suffer from the fact that my mother now cannot testify, but it may still be a long time before there's any action.
In the meantime, I turned my attention to recoupment and got partial redress from the bank. Then I went to the caregiver agency — the one which, you may recall, is "licensed and bonded." I kinda figured that "bonded" part meant that they had insurance that would make good on any losses incurred as a result of their employees' actions.
Yeah, you'd figure that, wouldn't you?
It turns out, as the owner of the agency explained to me, that his insurance company will only pay if there's proof of the loss. And what would constitute proof? "If the police get a conviction."
I asked him, "Is there any doubt in your mind that two of your caregivers robbed a 90-year-old blind woman?" He said no. But the insurance company will only pay if there's a conviction. If the caregiver disappears and is never caught, the bonding is worthless.
He again assured me this had never happened before in the history of this agency. Later, his partner called and gave me the same assurance. I don't believe either of them. First off, they've had hundreds, probably thousands of caregiver placements. What are the odds that there have only been two crooked ones and my mother would get them both, one right after the other?
Secondly: Remember how I said that her former caregivers would sometimes contact me to see if they could work directly for her? Well, when one did not long after the first crimes were discovered, I asked her if she'd ever heard of any caregivers at that agency robbing their clients. She said, "Sure…it happens all the time. At least once, maybe twice, when they placed me with a new client, I was told it was because the one before me had been caught stealing." Another former caregiver who called me for the same reason told me the same thing.
The second one told me she'd twice replaced caregivers who had been found to have been stealing…in both instances, pieces from the client's jewelry cases. She said, and again I'm re-creating here from memory, "They always think, 'she'll never miss it' but they don't realize that's the first thing elderly women miss — their best jewelry. They can't see well enough to read their bank statements or don't understand them…but they all understand when they can't find their favorite earrings."
She'd recently been interviewed by a reporter for the L.A. Times who was — and as far as I know, still is — working on a story about this kind of burglary. With my permission, she gave him my number and he called me. I wasn't ready yet to go public with our cases — at this stage, I still thought the police and/or the agency's insurance company would be doing something soon — but we did have a conversation. He said he had found many such incidents and that they were not as uncommon as you might think. But the main thrust of his story is that most of the elderly never realize when it's being done to them. Our story is interesting but we're in the minority. We caught it.
So here is where things stand. I am Waiting for Godot — i.e., for my mother's cases to move from the bottom of the pile at the police station to the top. I am told at least one is easily prosecutable if and when that happens…if it happens. One detective there told me that the most likely scenario that would result in either woman winding up in a courtroom would be if she were to be caught doing it again, and then our case would be folded into that case. Ethel might be getting her nursing license right about now.
Of course, for them to be caught again would mean that the person(s) they're stealing from now would have to notice. That, as we've learned, doesn't happen most of the time. Complicating it all, of course, is that my mother is not here to testify in the case where it might matter…and oh! Did I mention that I checked and neither Lucy nor Ethel seems to have the same phone number any more? The agency believes each has moved and left no forwarding address.
My lawyer is researching the matter, deciding the best direction in which to sue. I suspect I'll spend more than I'll collect but I'm not concerned about that. First off, it will be very satisfying. Secondly, it might in some microscopic way make this kind of thing happen less often. And thirdly, I can afford it as I've just found a great new source of income. I'm going to begin caregiving for really old people who can't see very well and I'll write checks without their knowledge and charge things to their credit cards. Until we start spending more money on police in Los Angeles, it's a gold mine. A gold mine, I tell ya.