In December, investigators went door-to-door in the Jamaica Bay retirement community asking for information about their 92-year-old neighbor found partially mummified in her home.
No one had seen Violet Barker in a year. In her 30 years as a resident, not many had ever talked to her.
For more than 20 years, Carl Minnberg was her next-door neighbor down the dead-end road, Azua Bay, in suburban Boynton Beach. In those two decades, he doesn’t think they shared more than 50 words.
“She was very antisocial,” Minnberg said last week. “We’d say hello at the mailbox. She’d thank me for bringing in her garbage can. (She was) really just a hermit.”
Her son, Robert C. Hart, told Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies she hadn’t left the white-paneled, rusting home with lace window curtains in more than two years. She had a hard enough time using her walker to get from her bed to the bathroom.
“I hadn’t seen her in more than a year, but I figured she was really sick or something,” Minnberg said.
The medical examiner ruled the 92-year-old woman died from starvation, though her manner of death could not be determined “due to the advanced stage of decomposition” of her body.
Whether her slow death was intentionally executed by her 65-year-old son or was a byproduct of his neglect, authorities last week charged him with aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person in her death. Hart, described by neighbors and court documents as mentally unstable and unfit to care for his ailing mother, was arrested Tuesday, three days after what would have been his mother’s 93rd birthday.
Much like her life, details about what led to Violet Barker’s death are a mystery.
Nicole Bishop, director for Palm Beach County Victim Services, said nearly half of all elderly abuse deaths are due to negligence.
“It’s very sad. Sometimes (caregivers) don’t have the mental or physical capability to take care of these adults,” Bishop said. “Sometimes they take them home (into their own care) for economic reasons or to steal their medication.”
When Hart was questioned by investigators in December, he said he did not have a job and relied on his mother’s Social Security checks for income. But he also claims his mother told him she was going to “hibernate” for a month and to leave her alone. So he did. Two weeks after their conversation, she was dead.
Hart told investigators he felt guilty. He said he didn’t try to feed her or to get her any medical help. Instead, investigators say he walked past her bedroom on the way to his own each night as his mother’s corpse filled with maggots and flies buzzed around the room.
“Sometimes the caregiver isn’t able to take handle of taking care of the person. Maybe they’re depressed themselves by the situation, or don’t have support from other family members,” Bishop said. “Intentional and unintentional, in either circumstance, they need assistance.”
Bishop said much like child abuse, signs to look for in elderly abuse and neglect are dramatic weight loss, major changes in personality, dirty clothing and unkempt appearances, and unexplained injuries.
Shirley Frank said she first saw the signs of Barker’s demise in 2013.
Frank first moved into Jamaica Bay from Ohio in 1995 and settled next door to Barker. Though she didn’t talk much about herself, Barker came over to her porch many mornings to share coffee, gossip about neighbors and play with Frank’s toy poodle, Brandi. Barker was a “spry and strong” woman, riding her bicycle through their neighborhood and going to the South Florida Fair on many occasions with Frank.
Though she didn’t talk much about her family, Barker’s son would come by her home every Sunday for dinner and to have his mother wash his clothing, and she kept photos of her estranged daughter and grandchildren who lived in Canada.
Frank moved in and out of the community three times over the years, but always checked in on Barker. During her final time there in 2013, she knew something was wrong with her friend and her son, Robert C. Hart, who had moved into the home.
“She wouldn’t let you do anything for her,” Frank said. “The only thing I had left to do was call for help.”
During the summer of 2013, a Florida Department of Children and Families investigator came to the home and found Barker reeked of urine, “was merely skin and bones” with waist-length hair matted on her head, and had dried blood on her arm and face.
After the investigation, emergency protective services were granted by the court and Barker was moved into an assisted-living facility. Soon after, Frank moved back to Ohio, where she currently lives. She had no idea that by November 2013, the court ordered that Barker no longer need protective services. A complete DCF case file on Barker was not immediately available. It’s unclear when Barker left the facility and went home.
“I’ll never understand why they let her back.” Frank said. “It’s a shame.”
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