An unspeakable crime
The video is in black and white and slightly grainy. What’s clear, however, is the figure of a person, lying motionless in bed in the corner of a small bedroom. Soon, a man, later identified as the 67-year-old caretaker and owner of an adult family home in King County, walks into frame, pushing a wheelchair. The man situates the chair at an angle next to the bed, then walks to the edge of the bed. He stands over the bed’s occupant staring down, and then he quickly looks up and scans the entrance to the room. The caretaker looks down again, then places his bare hand under the bed sheet. Periodically, he looks back toward the door to make sure he is undisturbed.
After a minute with his hand under the bedsheet, the adult family home owner reaches around the figure and as he lifts, the video shows the figure in bed is that of an elderly woman. She’s rail thin, with sunken cheeks, and her body seems locked in the fetal position. She is an 83-year-old resident of the adult family home with severe dementia. The man props the woman up, so that she is sitting at the edge of the bed. He takes her hand, and rubs it over the zipper of his pants. The woman lets out a guttural sound and reflexively pulls her hand back.
The caregiver then leans the elderly woman’s head against his stomach, lifts his shirt and then places his hand down his pants. With the woman still helplessly propped against him, he pulls his penis over the top of his waistline. The caregiver then places the woman’s hand on his penis. He forces his penis in the woman’s face and mouth by pushing the back of her head. The woman resists and lets out a low whimper. In all, the shocking abuse goes on for more than five minutes.
The video evidence was captured with a hidden camera placed inside the room by the woman’s daughter, who became concerned that something was wrong when her mother began holding her hand longer at the ends of visits, and the daughter noticed a “sadness in her eyes.”
The most comprehensive studies approximate abuse in about 10% of the elderly population, and reports of elder abuse are on the rise. In 2008, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) Adult Protective Services division received nearly 14,400 reports of elder abuse. The agency found cause to investigate 12,000 of those reports. In 2016, those numbers more than doubled. DSHS logged more than 42,000 reports, and investigated nearly 30,000.
Despite the dramatic jump in numbers recently, experts agree that the abuse of vulnerable adults is vastly underreported and pitifully understudied. This is particularly true of elder sexual abuse. Elder sexual abuse is typically defined as “non-consenting sexual contact of any kind” and includes unwanted touching; sexual assault or battery, such as rape, sodomy, or coerced nudity; sexually explicit photographing; and sexual contact with any person incapable of giving consent. Criminal convictions in elder sexual abuse cases are extremely low. National statistics estimate that only 1% of the reported cases of elder sexual abuse are successfully prosecuted. A significant impediment to criminal convictions is often preexisting cognitive deficits such as dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, which impair the ability of the elder sexual abuse victim to communicate the existence of abuse.
Sadly, those same physical conditions which inhibit vulnerable adults from reporting sexual abuse have been found to compound the trauma of the sexual assault. One study found that 55% of the elderly sexual abuse victims in one sample size died within 12 months of the assault. Complete silence was common among the victims, and many of the incidents came to light only after obvious physical signs or evidence was noted by others.
In the King County case described above, the video evidence was overwhelming. Detectives quickly arrested the adult family home owner, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to Rape in the Second Degree. Tragically, the effects of the rape were also overwhelming. The victim’s condition quickly deteriorated. Soon, she stopped eating and was forced to move in with her daughter for hospice care. The victim died less than two months after the sexual assault was captured on camera. The victim’s family was devastated, sickened with grief and guilt for not recognizing the signs of abuse earlier.
The caregiver’s criminal conviction brought little comfort, because it failed to address the immense damages suffered by the victim. In addition to the elderly woman’s heartbreaking decline, the woman’s daughter had the haunting memory of her mother’s abuse, and, ultimately, her death in hospice at her home. Unfortunately, insurance policies for the adult family home were minimal and included express provisions excluding coverage for all intentional acts, and specifically sexual abuse. As is often the case, the perpetrator also had little in the form of personal property or money. One relatively bright spot in the otherwise dim prospects for obtaining some measure of compensation for the victims existed, however. The adult family home was owned outright by the convicted rapist.
Probable validity & probable cause
A writ of attachment is a form of prejudgment process in which the court orders a specific piece of property to be seized or attached. RCW 6.25.070 establishes the procedure for seeking a writ of attachment and provides, in relevant part, that:
[T]he court shall issue a writ of attachment only after prior notice to the defendant … with an opportunity for a prior hearing at which the plaintiff shall establish the probable validity of the claim sued on and that there is probable cause to believe that the alleged ground for the attachment exists.
Probable validity of claims
In the King County case, the elderly victim’s daughter filed suit against the adult family home and its owner/caregiver for sexual battery, assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligent misrepresentation, breach of contract, and violation of RCW 74.34.200, the Abuse of Vulnerable Adults Act. Shortly after filing the complaint for damages, the Plaintiff moved the court for a writ of attachment.
The Plaintiff was able to establish the probable validity of each of her seven claims against the Defendant caregiver, because he had given arresting officers a detailed admission of his sexual abuse and exploitation when presented with the undercover video. In fact, he admitted that he had sexually assaulted the victim at least ten times in the past.
Probable cause for the writ
The second part of the analysis to successfully obtain a writ of attachment requires the plaintiff to demonstrate probable cause. In an attachment proceeding, the grounds for issuance of a writ are outlined in RCW 6.25.030. For this case, the Plaintiff sought damages “for injuries arising from the commission of some felony, gross misdemeanor, or misdemeanor.” The victim’s daughter also learned through public listings that the caregiver put the home where the sexual assaults occurred up for sale shortly after his arrest. Under the statute, the listings and sales were probable cause to believe the Defendant was attempting to dispose of the properties and keep them out of the reach from impending judgments for the Plaintiff. With the videotape evidence, the victim’s daughter was able to obtain not only the writ of attachment on the adult family home, but summary judgment soon after. The victim’s family moved forward and obtained the abuser’s home.