OCTOBER 7, 1996 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 14
In February, 1983, Minnesotan Georgia Hoppe signed a durable power of attorney. She trusted Paul Bengston, an employee of the Green Lake State Bank where she kept her accounts, and so named him as her agent in the power of attorney. Although Mr. Bengston left the bank's employment a few years later, Ms. Hoppe continued to name him as her agent.
Six years later, Ms. Hoppe was hospitalized and then released to a nursing home. Almost immediately, Mr. Bengston began to take advantage of her trust. In the nine months after her institutionalization, Mr. Bengston took about $100,000 from her accounts.
Finally a bank employee became suspicious. Allen Struck contacted Ms. Hoppe at the nursing home, hoping to ask her about the transfers. Ms. Hoppe was reluctant to discuss her finances with him, and pronounced her complete confidence in Mr. Bengston's handling of her accounts.
Minnesota's "Vulnerable Adults Reporting Act" (similar in most respects to Arizona's law requiring reporting of abuse, neglect and exploitation) required bank employees to report their suspicions of financial exploitation, and so Mr. Struck did what the law required. He first contacted an intake worker at the County Family Services Department (the equivalent of Arizona's Adult Protective Services); the intake worker in turn contacted the local Sheriff's office, the County Attorney and the state Department of Health Facilities. All agreed that an investigation should be undertaken, and that Ms. Hoppe should be evaluated to determine whether she was competent to make financial decisions.
What happened next was complete failure of the system to investigate the charges against Mr. Bengston. For over seven months, no case worker visited Ms. Hoppe, interviewed Mr. Bengston or followed up on Mr. Struck's report in any way. Meanwhile, Mr. Bengston took an additional $64,500 of Ms. Hoppe's money, and the ever-vigilant Mr. Struck made another report to the Family Services Department.
Finally, in October, 1990, the protective agency lumbered into action. A special guardian was appointed for Ms. Hoppe, the power of attorney revoked, and proceedings begun to recover the misappropriated funds. When Mr. Bengston proved to have few remaining assets, the special guardian sought recovery from the bank and the County Family Services Department.
The County asked the judge to dismiss Hoppe's suit, claiming that nothing in the Vulnerable Adults Reporting Act required the County to actually conduct an investigation. The judge agreed, and so dismissed the suit. Minnesota's Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the District Court decision.
According to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the failure to report abuse, neglect or exploitation is a crime and subjects the person failing to make reports to civil liability. But the protective services agency is under no obligation to act in a timely fashion on the allegations. Ms. Hoppe's estate (she died while legal proceedings were pending) recovered nothing from the County for its failure to investigate Mr. Bengston's wrongdoing. Hoppe v. Kandiyohi County, Feb. 16, 1996.