During rehearsal for her church’s band one Monday night, Paula McElroy called home to check on her 82-year-old husband who suffers from dementia. No answer.
The conviction of former Jackson County employee Marc Hawk on elder abuse charges last month closed the book on a painful family struggle.
Now, the relatives of the victim, Earla Mae Cowan, are hoping the case also changes the way elder abuse is prosecuted in the future.
“I hope it does,” said Ann Buchanan, Cowan’s niece. “But people just have to know there will be doors slammed in their faces, and they have to keep on knocking loud and be ready to go through.”
Last month, Hawk pleaded guilty to one felony count of elder abuse and four counts of embezzlement. Hawk used a power of attorney to drain his aunt’s bank account of over $60,000. The case is the first ever conviction on an elder abuse charge in the seven western counties that comprise the 30th judicial district.
Hawk received five days in jail and a five-year suspended sentence that includes $53,438.87 of restitution to Mrs. Cowan. Buchanan said the sentence wasn’t as heavy as the family wanted.
“We didn’t get exactly what we set out to get in the beginning,” Buchanan said. “But the case was not dismissed, and there were times it looked like it might be.”
For Buchanan and her brother and sister, Bruce Buchanan and Kay Clemmons, the conviction was a vindication of a two-year struggle for justice.
“We had evidence in our hands that nobody wanted to look at,” Buchanan said. “It was hell.”
When the siblings first learned their aunt only had $18 left in her bank account, they had two concerns. The first was to care for Earla Mae, and the second was to see justice done.
According to Buchanan, both the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney were reluctant to investigate the case. Buchanan said more than one person told the family the case was a civil matter, but she and her siblings refused to be put off.
“We told them we don’t want to gain financially,” Buchanan said. “We want justice. He did wrong, and we want someone to know.”
The case exposed the difficulties of prosecuting elder abuse cases in general. Michael Rich, Elder SAFE project coordinator for the 30th District Alliance, found out about Cowan’s case and has been a resource to the family in its quest to bring Hawk to justice.
Rich said a long history of failed prosecutions left both victims and law enforcement officers demoralized.
“When they’ve been charged, the cases have often been dismissed. There’s been no teeth in the law,” said Rich. “Once it’s known in the community that the law has some teeth, then it’s easy to get people to come forward.”
The state statutes on elder abuse require victims to be both elderly and disabled, and often times, law enforcement officers find it more expedient to prosecute cases without triggering the specific elder abuse statutes.
“Law enforcement and I are in agreement that however we can get someone, that’s how we’ll get them,” Rich said. “But we do know that in certain cases the elder abuse statute is a more serious felony.”
In Hawk’s case, the elder abuse statute upgraded the felony from Class H to Class G. Rich has used a federal grant to train law enforcement in the seven western counties to recognize and prosecute elder abuse using the statutes.
The overwhelming majority of elder abuse crimes are perpetrated by family members, a fact that makes them even more difficult to prosecute. Rich hopes Hawk’s conviction will send a strong message that elder abuse is a crime that will be prosecuted on its own merits.
“Law enforcement will be much more likely to charge in the future because this one was successful,” Rich said.