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Reports of abuse of the elderly in Sonoma County have surged 44 percent in eight years, to more than 3,000 every year, county officials say.

"I think as our senior population grows and as we become more aware of what's happening with aging issues, reports will rise," said District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who has established a separate unit to deal exclusively with cases of fraud, neglect and violence against older people.

Saturday is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and advocates in Sonoma County hope to use it as an opportunity to talk about crimes against the elderly. Members of the multi-agency Sonoma County Elder Protection Workgroup this week planted thousands of purple flags in Santa Rosa at the corner of Bicentennial Way and Mendocino Avenue to graphically illustrate how many reports have come in to the elder-related offices of the county Department of Human Services.

"It's just important that as we age in Sonoma County that we are really vigilant in our efforts to protect and increase the awareness of our elders of the protections that are available," said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin in introducing a resolution this month to recognize the awareness day.

Abuse of the elderly takes many forms, advocates say, from physical and sexual violence to financial exploitation, verbal abuse and neglect.

"The community doesn't like to hear this, but it is most often a family member" committing the abuse, said Gary Fontenot, section manager of the division of Adult and Aging Services, "because they have the access" to the older person.

Investigating and intervening in cases involving the elderly can be tricky, advocates say. Older people often have diminished physical and mental capacities that make it hard for them to reach out for help or testify in court. They often are afraid of wrecking their relationship with family members or trusted caregivers by reporting abuse.

"They are dependent on these people and they're not mobile and it is difficult to get them to come in," said Gloria Eurotas, executive director of the Family Justice Center in Santa Rosa, a quasi-governmental agency that specializes in assisting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and elder abuse.

The center, at 2755 Mendocino Ave., houses representatives of several agencies, including social workers, police officers and county prosecutors, to provide a one-stop point of contact for victims.

In the case of older people, however, the situation gets more complicated, Eurotas said. Because the older victims are often isolated and in poor health, victims advocates, investigators, and even prosecutors often have to visit them in their home to do work that is normally done in offices and courtrooms.

Such cases also are further complicated by the fact that older people have the right to refuse help, unlike children in abusive situations, Fontenot said. Social workers from his office can intervene only if the victim agrees, or if there is an obvious threat to health and safety.

That means it is vitally important for social workers, police officers and others on the front line to earn the trust of senior victims, a task made more difficult by the shame victims may feel, and by barriers of language and culture in immigrant communities.

To try to meet that need, the district attorney's office recently secured a $400,000 federal grant to train police, prosecutors and social workers to recognize signs of abuse and investigate them quickly and accurately.

The Elder Protection Workgroup, meanwhile, has been holding a series of seminars to educate seniors themselves to recognize signs of abuse in friends and relatives — and even in their own homes.

"By creating increasing awareness, we hope to prevent a lot of abuse from happening," said Jane Eckels, chairwoman of the work group. "And if it does happen, to get it stopped and be prosecuted if it rises to that."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)