Standing on the steps of the Santa Barbara Police Department on Tuesday, Marion Schoneberger shared with others about elder abuse in Santa Barbara County, urging people to be vigilant as they work to protect older friends and relatives from predators.
Schoneberger, who formerly worked as the director of business development at Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care and whose own family has been affected by elder abuse, told her story at the event, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Council to launch the "Stand Up Against Elder Abuse" campaign to build awareness and empowerment.
Schoneberger said that when her father wanted to stay in his home in his later years, her siblings turned to her as the expert on who to hire as a caretaker for their father.
She found a young woman to take care of him who handled the grocery shopping, ran errands and took Schoneberger's father to the doctor.
"We were all really happy with the arrangement," she told the crowd. "We welcomed her into our family for more than three years."
Her father died at home with all his family around him, and "it couldn't have been better," she said.
The story took a nasty turn, however, when Schoneberger's sister discovered a credit card charge to her father's account after his death.
After questioning family members about whether they had made the charge, they eventually discovered that the caretaker had made not only that single transaction, but had been purchasing items for herself and her family whenever she would go to the grocery store and other places to buy things for Schoneberger's father without his knowledge.
"It was insidious and systematic," she said. "Over the course of two years, she stole over $30,000. ... She was stealing from him from the very beginning."
Schoneberger encouraged families to be on the lookout for abuse, even among family members.
"No one gets a free pass," she said.
District Attorney Joyce Dudley also spoke, holding up a photo of her 90-year-old mother celebrating her birthday. She said her mom is among the rare lucky seniors who have been able to live on their own, but she still needs people to look out for her.
Dudley said senior citizens can be victims of emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse, and seniors are especially vulnerable because they can't — or won't — report the crime.
A person may have a physical or cognitive disability that keeps them from reporting a crime, or because they are so dependent on their caretakers "that they just don't want to run the risk," she said.
Dudley said that most of these crimes are perpetrated by family members and asked that if people even suspect that an elder is being abused in any way, they should call police.
"It could be the most important phone call you've ever made, and if you don't make it, it could be the phone call you most regret never having made," she said.
Sheriff Bill Brown said his office sees about 25 reports of elder abuse a year in the county, and those reports tend to be the most egregious cases.
In reality, he said, there are closer to 600 cases that take place but go unreported.
"Elder abuse is right in our midst," Brown said, adding that anyone who suspects abuse should report the case to law enforcement.
SBPD Sgt. Riley Harwood was also at the event, and said the department saw 44 documented cases of elder abuse last year.
Amy Mallett, who works with seniors at the Goleta Valley Community Center and serves on the Santa Barbara Elder and Dependent Abuse Prevention Council, encouraged the community to be watchful and protect senior citizens.
"We have in place all the necessary things to make sure this doesn't happen in our community," she said. "We can do it. ... I ask that you rededicate yourselves to this fight."
Event organizers invited others to take a pledge to help prevent elder abuse by signing their name at CentralCoastSeniors.org.