FOX 13 Investigates: Son felt powerless to stop elderly father's gifts to caregiver

- At 83, Charles Sarofian was sharp and stubborn, but vulnerable and dependent. The Korean War veteran had a host of health issues, including an amputated leg. His wife died years earlier. One son lived out of state; the other son, Stephen, lived 45 minutes away.

His home healthcare worker, Marnie Smith, was assigned to take care of him on weekdays. Stephen visited him every Saturday.

Stephen says when his father started to talk about wanting to help out with Smith’s mortgage payment, he was alarmed.

"He was a little bit tight with his money, and that was a good thing, because he knew -- before this person came along -- that he needed to live off what he had for the rest of his life,” Stephen said.

When he reviewed his father’s bank statements, he saw more that concerned him: Multiple ATM withdrawals per week; there were checks written out to Charles’ name and cashed.

“I’m not sure where all this money was going," Stephen said. "I called him up and I said, ‘Dad, I know you're giving her money.’" Stephen recalls his father’s response: “It's none of your business -- you and that damn computer. I can't believe you found all this out.”

It would be one of the last conversations they had. After that, Stephen says Charles took his name off his bank account and stopped talking to him. 

A few weeks later, records show, Stephen contacted the Veterans Administration, which had provided the caregiver through the Sun City office of Comfort Keepers. He expressed his concerns and asked them to assign someone new. 

He also contacted Adult Protective Services at the Department of Children and Families with his concerns. Records show both agencies investigated by asking Charles if he was giving Smith anything of value. Charles told each agency he was not, and that he was happy with Smith. 

Adult Protective Services also contacted Smith. “She stated she has never accepted any monetary gifts from the victim and would not do so,” according to the DCF investigative report.

Both agencies closed the case without asking to see any financial record-keeping.

Charles Sarofian died four months later.

After Charles’ death, Stephen discovered a mortgage company deducted $2,500 from Charles’ account days before his death. Charles had a reverse mortgage.

He also learned Smith had taken his father to her attorney to change his will; his father took his name off the will and added Smith to it. 

Stephen says what he discovered next was disheartening, if not maddening: Few agencies seemed willing to investigate possible financial exploitation once they determined his father was mentally competent. 

"It's very difficult for the children because they're watching what they believe to be, and quite possibly is, exploitation of their parent.  And there's very little they can do to stop it," offered attorney Roberta Flowers, director of the Elder Law Center at Stetson University.

Flowers, a former federal prosecutor, says too often, investigators at oversight agencies, prosecutors and law enforcement fail to pursue a case once it’s determined the alleged victim is able to make decisions. But competence alone doesn’t mean a person cannot be financially exploited. 

"The law talks whether somebody's vulnerable, meaning that they can't care for themselves. Now this person has come in to take care of them,” Flowers explained. "The thing that most elderly people really fear is having to leave their homes and go live in a facility.”

CASE CLOSED?

“I have a briefcase full of evidence I offered to every agency. Nobody wanted anything,” Stephen said. “They never asked me for any evidence, and I was surprised with that.”

Stephen contacted more agencies and asked them to investigate the cash withdrawals, the checks, the change of the will and the mortgage payment.

Armed with what he believed was new evidence of possible exploitation, Stephen contacted the following agencies. Records reviewed by FOX 13 show each agency closed his complaints without reviewing the will or bank records:

- Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office: The detective closed the case because she could not interview Charles, according to the report. “Everything is in the father’s name. If there were a victim, it would have been the father,” Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Debbie Carter said in a phone interview. “We can’t interview him for him to tell us, yes, she took the money or no she didn’t. We don’t know where the money went.”

- Agency for Healthcare Administration: Records show the state ACHA received a report about the alleged financial exploitation on June 2, 2015, and closed the complaint on the same day. ACHA refused to comment on the case. At the end of the summer, Sarofian filed another complaint with ACHA. Records show the agency responded with an inspection of Comfort Keepers' Sun City office in October. The office passed the inspection.

- Comfort Keepers: Stephen contacted the home healthcare agency in December, asking him for a documented response to the concerns he’d expressed about Smith. “It was brought to my attention that the Veterans Administration, the Florida Department of Children and Families, as well as the Florida Department of Healthcare Administration may have conducted administrations in which Mr. Charles Sarofian was possibly involved,” says a letter signed by owner Fred Svejda. “Comfort Keepers was not involved in the initiation of any of these investigations nor did Comfort Keepers receive any notice of them.” Svejda did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Veterans Administration, which provided the caregiver, reviewed Stephen’s January 2015 complaint and spoke to FOX 13 after Stephen signed a waiver giving them permission to do so. 

“My understanding is that the veteran was very happy with and wanted to retain the home health aide,” said VA spokeswoman Karen Collins, noting Stephen didn’t have authority to direct his father’s care. “My chief of social work has also reviewed the notes and verified there was no indication of cognitive impairment in the patient’s records, which would have been a precondition for financial exploitation. “

MARNIE SMITH

“This man is crazy,” Smith told FOX 13 in a phone interview, when asked about Stephen’s allegations. “I’d never ever take advantage of an elderly person. I’m not like that.”

“Charlie felt like, I think, that I was all he had,” she added.

“The [January 2015] DCF investigation was over months before I accepted money from Mr. Sarofian,” Smith said.  “I was a good friend, and he was a good friend, and I shouldn’t have done it and that’s that.”

When asked about Stephen’s questions about his dad’s cash withdrawals, she said she did not know how Charles spent his cash.

As for the will, Smith said Charles wanted to change his will, so she took him to her attorney at his request.

"Everything was left to my twin brother,” Stephen said. “I was OK with that -- I'm not all about money -- but [it was] the fact that he was giving her the car."

Smith, who said she’s still employed with Comfort Keepers, did not know she’d be receiving the car and repudiated the gift a few weeks after his death. She also says she never took the car into her possession, though Stephen disputes that claim.

Tampa family law attorney Edward Hanson says Charles was “very mentally competent” and “adamant” when Smith brought Charles to his office. 

“My take on it was that … he wanted to show his appreciation to Marnie,” he told FOX 13 in a phone interview. “I said, ‘It’s your money, it’s your life, you can do what you want, but at some point, everything will be scrutinized.’ That’s just the way it is with old people and younger women.”

MOTION FOR RESTRAINING ORDER

In August, Smith filed a petition for protection against stalking against Stephen. According to court records, she alleged he was stalking her by contacting various agencies, her work and her husband. She claimed she may have seen him drive by her house.

"It has affected my family. My kids won't go outside and play,” she told Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Walter Heinrich in the August court hearing. “They're afraid something is going to happen to me. It's affected my marriage.”

When Stephen had his chance to respond, he told Judge Heinrich about his concerns about the car, the will and the mortgage payment.

"If you'd like to look at them and go through them, you'd see where an 83-year-old man was going through the ATM two, three times a week getting out $200, $300. He's cashed checks for $3,000, $1,500,” he told the court. “This was my concern. That's why I started, not stalking her, but to tell everybody I needed to, to get her out of there; to change her out."

Heinrich then turned to Smith.

Judge: "All right. Miss, did you receive the car in the will?"
Smith: "I didn't know that I was receiving the car -"
Judge: "Yes or no?"
Smith: "Yes."
Judge: "Did you assist him in getting a new lawyer to change his will?"
Smith: "Mr. Sarofian had asked me to take him to a lawyer to -- he wanted to get Stephen off the will.
Judge: "Did you do that?"
Smith: "I took him to --"
Judge: "Did you do that? Yes or no?"
Smith: "Yes."
Judge: “Did you have $2,500 taken from his account to help you assist in your mortgage payment?”
Smith: “I did not take anything from Mr. Sarofian.”
Judge: “Did he pay you $2,500 because he gave you a gift, because you were such a good employee –“
Smith: “He gave me a gift.”
Judge: “-- of $2,500 to pay --“
Smith: “He gave me a gift.”
Judge: "OK."
Smith: "And I have --"
Judge: “Motion for restraining order for stalking is denied. This is not -- does not rise to a level of the legal stalking required because of the fact that what he's doing may be bad towards you, but it's being done for a legal purpose, and that's to determine whether or not you've done anything illegal.

LINK: Read the full transcript (PDF)

MORE RESOURCES NEEDED

Stephen says Heinrich was the first person who took him up on his offer to look at the financial records.

Flowers says investigations involving alleged financial crimes against the elderly require dedicated investigators who have experience handling those types of cases, which often require skills in financial auditing.

In those investigations, alleged victims may be unwilling, or unable to cooperate -– they might not have their mental capacities, or they may have passed away by the time the crime was discovered. But that doesn’t mean investigators should dismiss the case, Flowers said, noting that investigators find the same challenges in investigating crimes against children and domestic violence. Cases would routinely get dismissed, or wouldn’t get investigated.

“We had to put a spotlight on those cases and say we're going to have specially trained police officers who know how to deal with domestic violence victims, who know how to investigate those cases with eye an toward, we might not have a victim,” she said.

“So, until we get that same kind of idea in our head that we're willing to devote resources to this very serious problem, we're not going to be able to address this problem in a state like Florida that has so many elderly citizens.”

As it stands now, Stephen said, investigators seem too willing to close cases involving mentally competent, but vulnerable, elderly adults -- relying on the words of the alleged victim, and alleged perpetrator.

“I think they just went by what he had to say: ‘I can do what I want with my money,’” Stephen said.  

Smith says she understands some of the concern, saying there are “a lot of fraudulent caregivers out there,” but that she is not one of them. 

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