Flint, MI — From a small office on the ground floor of the county jail building, the four members of the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office elder abuse taskforce tackle concerns over the treatment of thousands of the community’s older residents.
The taskforce’s name is technically the “GRACE Team,” a somewhat clumsy acronym, its members joke, that stands for “Genesee County Response and Advocacy to Crimes against Elders.”
The team was formed in 2018 after the sheriff’s office received a Victim of Crimes Act (VOCA) grant to help identify and prosecute instances of elder abuse across Genesee County.
But that work has come to mean more than just making arrests in the intervening years.
Taskforce members estimate they receive five to 15 calls per day of reports of possible neglect or suspicious banking activity. They take part in resource fairs all over the county and are connected to and trained on local senior service providers to help make referrals when visiting residents and caregivers.
The taskforce also drops off food, drives older adults to court hearings and, on one occasion, even helped a man get out of an unsafe living situation.
“It’s real bad over there,” Charles Clear, 78, told Flint Beat of his past experience living at a motel on Dort Highway. “I wouldn’t even leave my room… If I walked to the store I carried a knife.”
Clear, a retired heavy-duty mechanic, was living at the southeast Flint motel when Genesee County Sheriff’s Deputy Christian Bowman of the GRACE Team stopped by to drop off food in February 2023.
Bowman said he took one look around — seeing cameras mounted to windows with duct tape and signs of multiple illegal activities — and told Clear he would be getting him out of there immediately.
“I actually linked up with Family Service Agency, FSA, and we got him a home,” Bowman said. “So I just drove over there, just like middle of the day on Friday, got all his stuff in my car, threw him in the car, and moved him over there.”
Bowman said that level of involvement is atypical for the team, but knowing that Clear was sleeping with a knife under his pillow, he’d felt compelled to take more immediate action.
“If it wasn’t for them [the GRACE Team], I’d probably be out there dead on the streets,” Clear said from his new, home in Flint Township, Mich. where he and his cat, Mishda, have since settled in.
On Aug. 18, 2023, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel visited Flint to talk about elder abuse issues and announced that her office would be working with the Genesee County Sheriff to take the GRACE Team model statewide.
In an interview after the roundtable event, Nessel told Flint Beat that elder abuse is a “significant” problem in Michigan, and her office is aware of roughly “73,000 incidences of abuse, neglect, and economic exploitation” annually through its Elder Abuse Taskforce.
While that number came from a 2007 governor’s report, according to more recent Adult Protective Services (APS) data, in 2022, APS received almost 55,000 referrals of elder and vulnerable adult abuse or neglect.
Nessel’s press secretary, Danny Wimmer, added that for both numbers, underreporting is assumed.
“In 2007 … the estimated reporting was 1 report for every 5 instances of abuse,” Wimmer wrote in an Oct. 5 email to Flint Beat. “Underreporting is still an issue, but we believe the [state elder abuse] task force efforts may have reduced the ratio to 1 in 2 or 1 in 3.”
Regardless of which number you use, Nessel said that elder abuse is an important area of concern that gets too little attention.
“One of the things that I found, frankly, when we started to work on these issues, is that there was very little training for law enforcement in this area around the state,” Nessel said. “We want to highlight departments that are getting it right.”
Which is why, she added, her office is now working with Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson to take the GRACE Team model statewide.
“Genesee County… they have their own specialized units,” she said. “Officers that are assigned to that unit have specialized training, and it just makes it so much easier for them to investigate these claims and to prosecute them.”
Components of a ‘successful’ elder abuse prevention unit
According to GRACE Team data shared via Genesee County’s senior millage records, as of July 2023, the specialized unit has provided services to nearly 2,000 older residents and issued over 275 elder abuse-related warrants since its founding.
It’s unclear how these numbers fare against other similar sheriff’s units because there are nearly no others known in Michigan as yet.
“I would not be able to say authoritatively how many counties have active specialized units for elder abuse. Staffing levels have adversely affected every department in the state,” Wimmer explained. “Muskegon County passed a mileage to fund an elder abuse unit and included staff in the prosecutor’s office as well. No other counties have reported active units to my division.”
Trying to compare those numbers to pre-GRACE Team numbers is also difficult because, as Sam Olson, the county’s probate court registrar and administrator, said, “it’s hard to quantify prevention.”
Olson did note, however, that the unit’s work has helped make his job easier once an older adult requires court services.
“Communication and teamwork is like — I know it’s like very general and very, like cliche to say — but it’s actually super important,” Olson said.
He went on to explain that the court works regularly with the GRACE team on matters like power of attorney, guardianship and conservatorship. The direct cooperation between the two departments, among the many other services the unit works with, means clearer understandings for Genesee County seniors who find themselves needing the justice system’s services.
“So they [the GRACE Team] see it from a criminal standpoint, and we see it from probate, I guess, civil standpoint, but it’s all sort of the same underlying facts that would require cooperation and education,” Olson said.
Genesee County Sheriff Capt. Jillian Macey helped build the county’s GRACE Team under former Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell, though she moved to a different role within the sheriff’s office earlier this year.
“I used to be the lieutenant over the GRACE team,” she said. “I’ve been taken away from it, to a certain extent, but it’s still my baby.”
Macey said that when Sheriff Pickell reached out to her about heading the new elder abuse prevention initiative five years ago, she wasn’t quite sure about it.
“[It was a] totally new unit,” she said, without much precedent to build from. “I had never even saw myself in that position.”
But, Macey added, she soon came to realize how critical the role was in a county where nearly one in five residents is age 65 or older.
Macey said that as other counties look to adopt a similar model, she would encourage them to hire a social worker to help with early training and education around working with older adults.
She said she benefitted from a social worker being part of the GRACE Team for its first two years of build-out, and though that woman has now transitioned to a state-level position, the temperament and training she provided was “a huge asset.”
“Her knowledge and the empathy that she had as a human being was so, so foundational to what we were building,” Macey said.
The captain noted that other training the GRACE Team receives is available to other sheriff’s offices more immediately, like education through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and regular check-ins with area senior service providers.
But, she added, if a county doesn’t start by creating a culture of empathy and understanding on their elder abuse prevention unit, even highly trained personnel may not be able to meet a county’s older residents where they’re at.
“I don’t have a social work background, but I have a significant amount of empathy, which is why I was able to be so successful in that role, right?” Macey said, noting that empathy doesn’t always come naturally in law enforcement situations. “So, in order for [this model] to work in other counties, I would definitely encourage them to utilize a social worker or adult protective services to bridge that gap.”
For Lieutenant Robert Nicklesen, who has led the GRACE Team since March 2023, he agreed a successful elder abuse prevention unit must also be composed of caring, hard workers, who should expect to sift through “hundreds of cases” each week.
But, he added, it’s also important that those team members have the “gift of gab” to help build trust in a community that may not view law enforcement as a resource or may not believe that they are being harmed or taken advantage of by loved ones and caregivers.
“Sometimes you’re explaining to a parent that their kid’s the one robbing them,” Nicklesen said, noting that his unit deals not only with cases of neglect but also financial crimes. “They don’t want to believe that… So it’s not always ‘fun,’ but it is necessary.”
Limiting factors in mirroring Genesee County’s success
Part of the reason the elder abuse prevention unit has been successful, both former and current GRACE Team members agreed, is because of federal and local funding support.
While the VOCA grant kicked off the specialized sheriff’s unit and continues to sustain it in part, the team’s work is also supported by the Genesee County Senior Millage.
Last year, the millage pulled in around $7.3 million, which pays for a host of supports for the county’s senior citizens, defined as those 60 and older, including a medical transportation liaison program, meal delivery, lawn care services, and funding the county’s 16 senior centers.
“We’re a little office that does a heck of a lot,” said Lynn Radzilowski, director of the county’s Senior Services Department and thereby senior millage spending.
In terms of the GRACE Team, she confirmed the millage provides roughly $500,000 to it, which pays for three detectives, including their salaries, benefits, insurances, trainings, equipment and overtime among other things.
Radzilowski said she views the team as vital to the work of her department because although her staff also has a relationship with Adult Protective Services, that’s not always the fastest way to provide help.
“APS is needed, but it can take a long time to get a referral,” she said. “I can call these guys and say ‘go here and see what’s going on.’”
She said being able to trust the GRACE Team for immediate wellness checks is wonderful, because although she hopes they don’t find any abuse, it’s a comfort to know there’s a way to address it as quickly as possible if they do.
Of course, Lieutenant Nicklesen later said, there is always a need for more funding to both sustain and grow out such a specialized team, but there’s also a limitation to what the unit itself can do.
Sometimes, people his team is tasked to protect do not want the unit’s help, he said, especially when it comes to financial crimes. Other times, the team is limited in the help they can provide once they are called upon.
Pat Kain, a Grand Blanc, Mich. resident who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, shared her experience with the GRACE Team in an interview with Flint Beat in late August.
She explained that before the unit’s intervention, she had been receiving calls from someone claiming to be a federal official.
“He told me he was from the United States government in Washington, D.C., and that I shouldn’t call the police or tell anybody that I’m talking to him,” she said. “He first wanted me to go to these different stores – Krogers and Kohls and Meijers — and buy gift cards.”
Kain said she ended up getting around $5,000 in gift cards for this person, shared how much money she had in her savings account when he asked, and even dropped a bag of cash into a car that pulled outside her house, per his instruction.
She said she felt “so stupid” about falling for the scam, but the stranger on the other end of the phone convinced her she’d be arrested if she told anyone about their interactions.
Eventually, she said, the scammer asked her to pull a large sum from her savings account. When she went to the credit union to do so, the teller asked her what the money was going toward.
“I don’t even remember now what I told her,” Kain recalled. “I think I told her I was buying a house.”
As financial institutions are considered mandated reporters for suspected instances of abuse, neglect and exploitation in Michigan, Kain’s credit union called the GRACE Team.
“They came to my house, or my door, and I was — it was almost a relief to have somebody here that I could tell what was going on,” Kain said.
The team then worked with Kain to set up a sting operation, hoping for the scammer to come by her house to try to collect the requested money while they were there to intercept.
Nicklesen said the person or group, whoever they were, were rather sophisticated, going so far as to set up a “spoof” number that rang on Kain’s caller ID as Grand Blanc Township’s Police Department while his team was in place.
Unfortunately, the operation didn’t end up working out, as the scammer never showed up nor tried to call again after that day.
While Nicklesen said that was a disappointing outcome, since there was also nothing the team could do to help Kain recoup the money she’d already given to the person or persons behind the phone calls, Kain said she remains grateful for the GRACE Team’s intervention.
She said she felt that the scammers could’ve “wiped her out” without outside help, and the team had made her feel “comfortable” at a vulnerable time.
“I wasn’t intimidated by them at all, and I just felt a sense of relief knowing that they were here to help me. Because I didn’t know what to do,” Kain said, adding that she wanted to share her story so other Genesee County seniors would know the team existed.
“Just make sure you recognize these guys as being — well, they’re my heroes,” she said at the end of the interview.
Taking the GRACE Team model statewide
Nessel said she and Genesee County Sheriff Chris Swanson are in talks about how to expand the county’s model to other areas of Michigan.
Nessel said she believes “the best way” to get other sheriffs behind the creation of an elder abuse taskforce is to ask sheriffs already doing the work, like Swanson, to speak with them.
“We’re talking about taking the show on the road and bringing the sheriff with me to go to talk to other sheriff’s departments and also municipal law enforcement,” she said. “Sheriff Swanson is committed to doing that, and we’re already having some of those conversations. So, I hope more is to come.”
For his part, Swanson said he’s very proud of the work Genesee County is doing for its older population, not only through his taskforce but also through the many connected service providers that help people draft wills, appoint conservators, and report neglect, abuse and exploitation.
“I will tell you with great pride and great humbleness that Genesee County is doing it right. Because we have those in place, and now we’re gonna show other people how,” he said.
So far, there is no official start date for Swanson and the GRACE Team’s “tour” to other departments across the state. However, Nessel said she’d invited the sheriff along to some of her office’s standing law enforcement trainings on elder abuse.
Flint Beat spoke with other counties’ senior services directors who said they would welcome the conversation.
“We have several different community law enforcement representatives from different cities,” Sheila Cote, senior services director for Macomb County, said. “However, what we’re finding out is that a lot of those cases that they investigate don’t go anywhere.”
Cote, who helped launch Macomb County’s elder abuse task force in March 2023, said many of those law enforcement representatives do have special training, but through getting everyone in the same room, it became clear that things were disjointed between different departments.
She said Macomb’s task force recently decided they needed to form subcommittees to look at the referral, investigation and prosecution processes, and the communications between those in charge of them, after realizing it was rare that representatives were speaking to each other across departments.
“So yeah, I would love to hear more about GRACE and connect with the individuals at the sheriff’s office that run this unit,” she said. “And I’d love to have them come present at our task force meeting.”
The Genesee County Sheriff’s GRACE Team, can be reached at 810-257-3422. To learn more about the signs of elder abuse, click here.