AUGUSTA, Maine — Attorney General Janet Mills announced Friday that her office has launched a new initiative with Legal Services for the Elderly to protect older Mainers from financial abuse.

Mills said in a written statement that she and the group have created a statewide task force to answer questions ranging from whether the court system is accessible to elderly Mainers to whether the state’s law enforcement community is adequately trained to investigate cases of elder abuse. The task force, which will include prosecutors, law enforcement officers, court personnel and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services, will be chaired by Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin and Jaye Martin, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly.

“For many years the attorney general’s office and the district attorneys have prosecuted crimes against the elderly,” said Mills. “But with the aging of our state’s population, these crimes have become more prevalent. We need to encourage older citizens to report crimes and to assure them that their personal and financial security is paramount, that their input is valuable and that the criminal justice system will treat them fairly.”

At the core of the effort is convincing elders to come forward if they have been victimized and ensuring they know what resources are available. There are an estimated 14,000 new reports of elder abuse in Maine every year, according to past statements from the state’s Office of Aging and Disability Services to the BDN, though some say those cases likely comprise as little as 15 percent of the overall instances of elder abuse.

“When we’re investigating cases, people are sometimes hesitant to come forward,” said Mills on Friday evening. “Senior citizens who are alone or are isolated, sometimes they’re very dependent on one or two individual people and they don’t want to tell on them. You want to make sure that they understand that services are available. There is help out there.”

An estimated 5 percent of Mainers older than 60 become victims of elder abuse, approximately 90 percent of them at the hands of family members, loved ones or professional caregivers. In Maine, which has the oldest per-capita population in the country, the problem is of special interest to advocates and law-enforcement officials.

The new task force will explore issues that have been highlighted as problem areas by local, state and federal authorities. The federal Government Accountability Office released a report in November 2012 that said at-risk seniors and those who have already been victimized would be better served by improved coordination of efforts and better training. Some of that training, according to elder advocates, should be directed at agencies and organizations that have frequent contact with elders, as well as workers at financial institutions who are in positions to notice when a person’s finances go awry.

“Giving power of attorney to someone else is not a license for that person to steal,” said Mills. “Power of attorney should be given judiciously and only when necessary. It’s a felony to knowingly endanger the welfare of an elderly or dependent person.”

Mills said some of this work is already underway in Maine, including by the Kennebec and Somerset County District Attorney’s Elder Abuse Task Force. Also focusing on the issue is House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, who organized a series of roundtable discussions last year which culminated in a daylong summit that attracted hundreds of participants.

“Elder abuse and financial exploitation of our seniors is unacceptable,” said Eves in a prepared statement on Friday. “Stepping up protections for Maine seniors is a core issue coming out of our roundtable series on aging in Maine. I’m pleased to see the attorney general and community leaders taking it head on.”

Mills said she expects the task force to complete its work within the next six months or so.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.