Tennessee’s district attorney generals are on a mission to protect seniors from elder abuse.
We are improving laws, increasing public awareness and using the help of other partners, along with criminal investigations and courtroom prosecutions, to protect our seniors from elder abuse. We need the help of informed citizens to win this battle.
Elder abuse can take a number of forms, including financial exploitation. Those taking an elder’s money could be telephone scammers, but may also include neighbors, family members, service providers or serial criminals looking for elderly people who may be easy targets. But elder abuse isn’t just a form of theft, it may also include the neglect of the elderly or vulnerable, physical abuse or even sexual abuse.
One Tennessee elderly and disabled victim was left to live alone and without the ability to care for herself. She was occasionally fed by a family member who would pass food through a window. Her underweight body was found on a heap of debris beneath the window, the site of her only human interaction or support.
And last year, a longtime caregiver for an elderly neighbor admitted to beating, kicking and even using a bullwhip on the 71-year-old man. The victim’s home was in deplorable condition and the victim, who suffered numerous broken bones and bruises, died shortly after being hospitalized. The caregiver pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and vulnerable-adult neglect, abuse and exploitation.
Earlier this year, a caregiver for an 87-year-old woman with dementia pled guilty to stealing $12,600 from her and forging papers to change the title on her car.
These are just a few of the criminal cases we see far too often in the courts of our state each year. Perhaps even more alarming is that we have reason to believe that the examples we see in Tennessee’s criminal justice system are only a fraction of the elder abuse that is actually occurring. Statistics on elder abuse suggest that only one out of 14 cases is ever reported.
The under-reporting problem of elder abuse is growing here and across the country as our aging population climbs.
As many as one of every 10 Americans over the age of 60 have experienced some form of elder abuse. Yet victims often are afraid – or unable – to report the abuse, or may refuse to assist in prosecutions because of their dependence or trust in the abuser in the absence of support from others.
Tennessee district attorney generals have worked diligently over the past four years to strengthen, revise and update criminal statutes pertaining to elder abuse. This has resulted in greater protections for the elderly and vulnerable, and better tools for police and prosecutors to hold offenders responsible. We believe, and are now seeing, that we can do more to help and that these recent efforts are helping.
Since 2015, more than 25 local-government and nonprofit agencies have been collaborating to combat elder abuse and to improve protection of these older adults. New laws created Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT), which include representatives from the District Attorney’s Office, CREA (an organization dedicated to stopping elder abuse), local law enforcement, and Tennessee’s Adult Protective Services, that meet regularly to discuss referrals of abuse, neglect and exploitation.
These teams improve communication and collaboration to make sure reported abuse is properly investigated, that victims are protected and that those responsible are brought to justice. We now have a united effort to protect older adults in Tennessee.
Our elderly population is growing as baby boomers are becoming seniors. This means the need for support services is also increasing, as is the opportunity to commit elder abuse. Our ability to respond to reports of elder abuse has improved. The missing link in our response to the elder abuse crisis is the reporting of the abuse. Without knowledge of a particular elder abuse case, law enforcement is powerless to intervene. However, after a report of abuse occurs, Tennessee is responding with help.
Our older adults are human beings deserving of basic fundamental freedoms and dignity. Our current elderly are part of what some have called the greatest generation. They have a wealth of skills and knowledge that they have developed over a lifetime of experiences. They add strength and wisdom to our community. Let’s all work together in any way we can to prevent elder abuse before it happens.
You soon will be seeing public service announcements by me as part of our campaign to bring greater awareness to the problem of elder abuse. These announcements will encourage anyone seeing indications of elder abuse to take a brief moment to make a report.
Tennessee state law requires reporting of suspected abuse of a vulnerable or elderly adult. Call 1-888-APS-TENN (277-8366) or visit https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov/ .
Dave Clark is district attorney general for the 7th Judicial District, consisting of Anderson County.