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Bills on governor’s desk would boost elder abuse protections

Suffering in silence, some older adults may never tell law enforcement or authorities about government benefits and other income being stolen by family, friends or caregivers.

“That’s a really hard one to deal with because many times that older person doesn’t want everybody to know what their flesh and blood is doing to them,” said Pat Freeman, chief executive officer of the Oakwood-based Legacy Link.

A trio of bills sent to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk this month would empower the elderly, their families and their advocates against abuse and exploitation. First lady Sandra Deal co-chairs the Older Adults Cabinet with Department of Human Services Commissioner Robyn Crittenden. The cabinet is an executive committee created in 2017 to address issues such as housing, health care and exploitation.

“I think for a lot of the bigger issues we’re seeing with older adults especially is financial exploitation. Family, friends and caregivers befriend the older adults and then help themselves to assets and so forth,” said Pat King, team leader of the forensic special investigations unit inside the state’s Division of Aging Services.

According to the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, reports to law enforcement on elder abuse or exploitation jumped from 18 cases in 2014 to 46 in 2015. In 2017, there were 56 reports.

Adult Protective Services’ policy writer/trainer Sharee Rines said the numbers statewide continue to rise.

“Over probably the last five years, our numbers have continued to go up,” she said.

Hall County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Brett Roach said financial exploitation is one of the main complaints investigated. Some cases involve abusing power of attorney, and the investigators work closely with Probate Court on such cases.

“Just because you are the power of attorney doesn’t make it where you can make a financial gain off of it,” Roach said.

House Bill 803 concerns trafficking elderly and disabled people, where a person “recruits, harbors, transports, provides or obtains” people “for the purpose of appropriating the resources … for one’s own or another person’s benefit.” These resources are often Social Security payments and other financial help for the elderly.

Anyone convicted of such trafficking would be guilty of a felony punishable by jail time between 12 months and 20 years, a maximum fine of $100,000 or both.

The trafficking statute is defined as “deception, coercion, exploitation or isolation.” Isolation is considered preventing a disabled or elderly person of having any contact with friends, family, law enforcement or others against their will.

“Even bank employees have gone to training about signs to look for, like if someone is illegally and without permission taking charge of a loved one’s assets,” Freeman said.

In 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office authored a report saying it had identified “hundreds of allegations of physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation by guardians” in 45 states and Washington D.C.

“In 20 selected closed cases, GAO found that guardians stole or otherwise improperly obtained $5.4 million in assets from 158 incapacitated victims, many of whom were seniors,” according to the report.

If family members are concerned about a loved one’s care in an assisted living facility or nursing home, Freeman said all licensed facilities must have a poster with Legacy Link’s number to call about complaints.

The agency’s ombudsman are advocates for the residents who settle issues before law enforcement or state government agencies get involved.

Regarding the increase in reports, King pointed to the 2012 initiative known as the At-Risk Adult Crime Tactics training, which is a 16-hour course for primary and secondary responders.

“We want to make sure when someone calls 911 — whoever answers that phone until the case goes to court — we want to make sure anybody that touches that case knows what abuse looks like, what questions to ask, how to build a case, who the mandated reporters are … so forth and so on,” King said.

Roach said investigators will look at living conditions and what type of care the person is receiving.

When her team started tracking arrests and where they’ve done training last year, King said there was a positive correlation between the two, suggesting that the training is helping to identify exploitation that previously wasn’t reported.

Senate Bill 406, which was part of Deal’s final criminal justice reform package, concerns background checks and licensing for employees and facilities. 

“One of the things that we’ve seen a number of times this past year is people are opening up homes (that) they say it’s assisted living or they call it a personal care home. They’re not licensed. They’re not following the rules that they should be for safety’s sake and feeding people as they should,” Freeman said.

Legacy Link’s ombudsman helped law enforcement and state government agencies in finding these places and helping shut them down.

“Many times, the owners just go to a different county or a different place in the state and start all over again,” Freeman said.

According to the bill, those submitting an application for a new license must send in a records check application for each owner, applicant and employee.

“On or before Jan. 1, 2021, each owner and employee of a currently licensed facility shall furnish to the department a records check application,” according to the bill. “In lieu of such records check application, a facility may submit evidence, satisfactory to the department, that within the immediately preceding 12 months each owner and employee received a satisfactory determination.”

Background checks will be processed through the Georgia Crime Information Center and the FBI.

House Bill 635 would increase information sharing among agencies investigating elder abuse and developing local task forces.

“Our Adult Protective Services unit cannot currently share its files with medical examiners and coroners, so that bill authorizes us to do that, should it be signed into law,” said Ashley Fielding Cooper, the chief operations officer for the Division of Family and Children Services.

If signed, the law would allow the prosecuting attorney, law enforcement, other state agencies involved in the investigation and coroners/medical examiners to have access to these abuse reports.

The district attorney of each judicial circuit would also be able to establish an “adult abuse, neglect and exploitation multidisciplinary team,” which would review responses to abuse reports and identify areas to improve. Cooper said the review team would be similar to the child fatality review completed by county committees annually.

“It does clarify some sharing of records information and clarify with Adult Protective Services, so it can be an asset in those communities that are able to form such a team,” said Julia Fisher Strauss, associate general counsel for the Division of Aging Services.

Reports on elder abuse or exploitation

2013: 14

2014: 18

2015: 46

2016: 52

2017: 56

2018 (as of April 20): 7

Source: Hall County Sheriff’s Office