Beaufort County caregiver thefts preventable through simple steps, experts say

astice@islandpacket.comApril 3, 2013 

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The recent arrests of three caregivers accused of stealing from their elderly patients in Beaufort County could become a trend as more seniors decide to be cared for at home, experts say.

But vulnerable patients and their families can avoid becoming victims by taking a few simple steps before hiring in-home caregivers, according to advocates for seniors and law enforcement officials.

Background checks, calling references and securing valuables could go a long way in preventing more caregiver thefts from hitting Beaufort County, they say. In March, three people who were hired to provide support and services to seniors were charged with taking advantage of them instead.

Two were unlicensed caregivers who worked in the Beaufort homes of elderly people. City of Beaufort police say Priscilla Jenkins and Tonia Gonsalves took money and exploited their vulnerable clients, a felony.

Claire Glasson of the Lowcountry Council of Government's Area Agency on Aging said her office is monitoring the increase of older adults choosing to "age in place" -- and some of the problems that came come with it.

"They're doing it for a number of reasons, including because they're more comfortable in their own home," she said. "Some assisted-living facilities are also very expensive."

Glasson said she is receiving a growing number of calls for advice on how to make sure nurses, home health aides or self-employed caregivers are trustworthy.

One possible remedy is to use a home health care or caregiver agency, which typically runs background checks on the caregivers it employs, Glasson said. Those hiring in-home help through an agency should check whether it's licensed, insured and bonded -- which means the client could be compensated if an employee is convicted of theft or property damage.

But such agencies can be expensive, Glasson said. Relatives of elderly people who need care at home should not forgo background checks, references or referrals just because they can't afford to go through an agency, she said.

Officer Hope Able of the Beaufort Police Department said both Jenkins and Gonsalves were self-employed.

Able recommended those seeking in-home caregivers should ask potential employees to provide a background check, available through the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.

A background check would have shown that both Jenkins and Gonsalves had a criminal history of fraud. In fact, at the time of her arrest, Gonsalves was out on bond for November 2012 charges of exploiting a vulnerable adult, accused of stealing from two other patients, according to the Beaufort Police Department.

Glasson said many people also wonder about the best way to pay caregivers and worry about giving them access to their checks or account numbers. While she said there is no best way to pay a caregiver, she recommended securing valuables, important documents, credit cards and cash when the aide is at the home.

In early March, medical technician Shamika Smart was accused of stealing credit cards from an 80-year-old Hilton Head Island hospice patient. Gonsalves is also accused of stealing credit cards while Jenkins is charged with paying herself more than she was supposed to earn through methods that are still under investigation, according to Beaufort police.Glasson said relatives of homebound seniors should help review financial statements and other records to make sure they aren't being taken advantage of.

Gonsalves, who is accused of defrauding two patients she cared for, was caught after watchful family members alerted police to suspicious transactions.

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