Crack down on elder abuse

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via Moak: Crack down on elder abuse, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20160521_A002_2

A disgusting trend has been taking place across the globe in the past few years; elderly people are increasingly becoming targets of abuse of all types. Frequently, seniors are vulnerable in every way — physically, emotionally and financially. It’s a sad state of affairs when we have to report elderly abuse on a regular basis in the pages of this newspaper, reflecting a sad reality that as our population gets older, they can increasingly fall victim.

Just last week, Sharon Sallie of Booneville was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a Tippah County jury found her guilty of false pretense and conspiracy after she and two compatriots convinced an elderly resident to “loan” her $15,000, which would be paid upon settlement of a medical lawsuit. However, an investigation found the settlement and lawsuit didn’t exist. Previously, two others, Ahmad Fryar of Ripley and Jessica Plaxico of Booneville had been found guilty on similar charges associated with the case. Sallie will also have to pay $15,518.25 in restitution and court costs.

My own understanding of this problem is largely the result of the efforts of one man. For years, Don Sullivan served as a tireless advocate for stopping abuse of the elderly. This tough-as-nails former FBI special agent and state agency head practiced what he preached, putting his personal time and resources into defending the rights of the elderly. Sadly, Don died in 2007, but not before founding the Elder Justice Center, which helped elderly crime victims, and helping educate many people — including me — about this pernicious and often-hidden crime. He was also heavily involved in the Mississippi Leadership Council on Aging, which equips law enforcement personnel with the tools to help elderly citizens, and brings citizens together with local law enforcement to keep watch over vulnerable adults in their communities.

Don’s legacy is secure, but the fight goes on.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Elder abuse affects about one in 10 people over 60 who live at home. The CDC is quick to point out that’s likely to be a very conservative estimate, because elder abuse often goes unreported. Many elderly victims lack the mobility or knowledge to report abuse, and may shy away from reporting it because of shame, embarrassment, or even fear of their abusers. The National Center on Elder Abuse claims that between one and two million adults 65 or over “have been injured, exploited, or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Administration on Aging, elder abuse takes many forms, including the following:

  • Physical Abuse — inflicting physical pain or injury on a senior, e.g. slapping, bruising or restraining by physical or chemical means.
  • Sexual Abuse — non-consensual sexual contact of any kind.
  • Neglect — the failure by those responsible to provide food, shelter, health care or protection for a vulnerable elder.
  • Exploitation — the illegal taking, misuse, or concealment of funds, property or assets of a senior for someone else’s benefit.
  • Emotional Abuse — inflicting mental pain, anguish or distress on an elder person through verbal or nonverbal acts, e.g. humiliating, intimidating, or threatening.
  • Abandonment — desertion of a vulnerable elder by anyone who has assumed the responsibility for care or custody of that person.
  • Self-neglect — characterized as the failure of a person to perform essential, self-care tasks and that such failure threatens his/her own health or safety.

The Administration on Agring notes there are a few telltale signs of abuse:

  • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions and burns. They may indicate physical abuse, neglect or mistreatment.
  • Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness and unusual depression may signify emotional abuse.
  • Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
  • Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
  • Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
  • Behavior such as belittling, threats and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
  • Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person can also be signs of abuse.

Mississippi’s seniors are protected by a section of state law called the Vulnerable Adults Act of 1986. This law requires “any person, care facility or professional employee who has knowledge of or reasonable cause to believe that a ‘vulnerable adult’ has been the victim of abuse, neglect, or exploitation” must report it to either the Mississippi Department of Human Services (for home health agency reports) or the Mississippi State Department of Health (for other care facility reports or reports by private persons). The law creates special criminal penalties for elderly abuse, with extended prison sentences and heavy fines. The law also gives immunity from prosecution to those (other than the perpetrators) who report elderly abuse.

Since much of the enforcement of the law comes from the Mississippi attorney general’s office, I asked Attorney General Jim Hood to tell me what his office does to stop elder abuse. “Scams against seniors will not be tolerated, and those who violate our senior citizens in any way will be prosecuted,” he replied. “Whether it is physical abuse by a caregiver or fraud by a stranger over the Internet, our office pursues investigations and prosecutions of all forms of elder abuse. Often, the targeted seniors lose a lifetime of savings in one scam, or they are abused by a loved one or caregiver over a long period of time.”

Since 2004, the AG’s office’s Division of Medicaid Fraud Control and Vulnerable Adults Units have together convicted more than 525 people of abuse, neglect and exploitation of care facility patients or residents, with many of those targeting seniors. And Hood has strong words for would-be offenders: “Those who harm our elderly should take note that we will come after you with the full force of our office to protect those who often cannot protect themselves.”

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