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Skrinjar joins Allegheny County DA's office as liaison for seniors

Matthew Santoni
| Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
FILE -- Dick Skrinjar
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
FILE -- Dick Skrinjar

Dick Skrinjar is bringng his knack for public and community relations to the Allegheny County courthouse.

Skrinjar, a former Pittsburgh mayoral aide and longtime PennDOT spokesman, joined the district attorney's office two weeks ago as a liaison between prosecutors and crime victims older than 60.

The office is trying to improve how it serves senior citizens, and magisterial judges are flagging cases involving them for Skrinjar and assistant district attorneys trained in elder law to review, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said.

“We can do a lot better servicing this population,” Zappala said. “We have so many agencies that provide support for seniors. ... He helps connect them to what they need.”

Skrinjar, 64, of Highland Park will be paid $39,000 a year. The office would not make him available for comment.

For years, Skrinjar was a fixture on television news and in newspaper stories as PennDOT's spokesman regarding road problems, particularly during snowstorms or major construction projects. When he retired from the state job, he became communications and planning chief for the late Mayor Bob O'Connor and then was assistant director of senior programming in the city Parks and Recreation Department.

“I've known Dick since he worked for Bob O'Connor; I know what he's done, and I thought he was just perfect for the job,” Zappala said.

Skrinjar works with assistant district attorneys specializing in cases involving older crime victims. He reaches out to the victims to determine whether their age or health conditions require special consideration so they can talk with investigators and prosecutors, make it to and from court appearances, or obtain legal services they may need.

As part of the office's outreach plan, Skrinjar will go to senior living communities to introduce or re-introduce himself and the office to those at risk of elder abuse, Zappala said.

Gradually, the office is phasing in an “elder abuse docket,” where any cases involving elder abuse will go through Skrinjar and the specialized assistant district attorneys. Starting next year, elder abuse cases will be assigned to two judges as part of a specialty court, similar to the existing DUI court, mental health court or veterans court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court formed an Elder Law Task Force in 2013 to study issues such as guardianship over senior citizens, abuse and neglect, and ensuring seniors' access to justice. The task force's recommendations cited research suggesting that one in 10 people age 60 and older living at home experience some sort of neglect, abuse or exploitation. Only one in 24 cases of abuse is reported, the report found.

The state Department of Aging said reported incidents of elder abuse, neglect, abandonment and exploitation in Pennsylvania rose 17 percent in fiscal year 2011-12, and an additional 3 percent in 2012-13, according to the task force.

“Many (older victims) feel intimidated about going to court, because many times it's a family member or a trusted person who's abusing them,” said Martha Mannix, an associate law professor and director of the elder law clinic at the University of Pittsburgh.

A liaison can help victims understand their rights and counsel them to overcome the difficulty of bringing charges against someone who has taken advantage of them, Mannix said. That person could identify issues that might affect the victim's testimony in court, such as hearing impairment or mobility or memory problems.

“I think it's a great idea having someone who is trained and sensitive to the needs of older adults,” Mannix said.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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