General Ray Whitley

Ray Whitley

Tennessee’s District Attorneys General are on a mission to protect seniors from elder abuse.  We are improving laws and increasing public awareness, along with criminal investigations and courtroom prosecutions, in order to protect our seniors from elder abuse.  We need the help of informed citizens to win this battle, and we all should do everything we can to protect our senior citizens.

Elder abuse can take a number of forms, including financial exploitation.  People taking an elder’s money could be anonymous telephone scammers, but they may also include neighbors, family members, service providers or simply criminals looking for elderly people to take advantage of who may be easy targets.  But elder abuse isn’t just limited to theft.  It may also include the neglect of the elderly or vulnerable, physical abuse or even sexual abuse.

For example, one elderly and disabled victim here in Tennessee was left to live alone and without the ability to care for herself.  She was fed by a family member who would pass food through a window to her.  Her underweight body was later found on a heap of debris beneath the window, the site of her only human interaction or support.

Here in Sumner County police officers and EMS personnel responded to a home where a 78-year-old bed-ridden female was discovered living in deplorable conditions with gnats covering the mattress on the floor where she lay and animal urine and feces covering the floor throughout the house.  She was being cared for by her son. 

She had bruises all over her face and body, swelling at her eye, and she was still wearing the heavily soiled hospital gown given her during her last hospital visit nearly a month before.  Her son was convicted of Impaired Adult Abuse or Neglect and Criminally Negligent Homicide and sentenced to prison.  

In another Sumner County case a man was sentenced earlier this year to prison for 10 years for taking his elderly parents’ savings and assets, causing them to have their home foreclosed.  He pleaded guilty to Financially Exploiting the Elderly, and Forgery.

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 elder 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 Attorneys have worked diligently over the past four years in the Legislature 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 believed, and are now seeing, that we can do more to help.  These recent efforts are now 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, local law enforcement, and Tennessee’s Adult Protective Services Agency, that meet monthly 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 prosecuted and 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 because there are more potential victims of elder abuse. Our ability to respond to reports of elder abuse has improved, but the most critical 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 cannot intervene. However, after a report of abuse occurs, we have the means in Tennessee to respond with help.

Our older adults are 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, and they add strength and wisdom to our community.  Let’s all work together in any way we can to stop elder abuse in its tracks and prevent it before it happens.

There will soon be more information in the near future as part of our District Attorneys’ campaign across the state to bring greater awareness to the problem of elder abuse.  I am encouraging 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 elder adult.  To make a report or express a concern, call 1-888-APS-TENN (277-8366) or visit https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov/

Ray Whitley is the District Attorney General for the 18th Judicial District.

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