New laws protect elderly and vulnerable adults from abuse

Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Abuse laws, the first passed last year with more to come this legislative session in Tennessee, lends a helping hand to local law enforcement who can help protect elderly and vulnerable adults.
Jay Langston

Three new laws in front of Tennessee legislators this session propose to protect elderly and vulnerable adults from abuse.

“Elderly abuse is a silent crisis,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) said. “Crimes of elder abuse often go unreported, leaving its helpless victims to suffer silently. And, far too frequently, it happens at the hand of those whom they trust the most. Incapacitation, shame, fear of losing independence, or simply being unaware of available resources, discourages victims from reporting abuse. Often, because the abuser may be a family member, the individual may also be fearful of reprisals.”

The proposed bills come from the Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force. The proposals build on a new law, sponsored by Norris and Representative Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown), and passed by the General Assembly last year, which set up Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams (VAPIT) in each judicial district in Tennessee to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose purpose is to protect elderly and vulnerable adults.

Norris, Keisling, Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), Senator Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Representative Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland) and Representative Dale Carr (R-Sevierville) announced February 27, 2017, comprehensive legislation to address abuse of elderly or vulnerable adults in Tennessee. Senate Bills 1192, 1230 and 1267 would expand systemic protection for victims of physical, mental or financial abuse and impose severe penalties on those who commit them.

Studies show that over the past decade, reported cases of assault and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults has increased by 20 percent or more. It is estimated that as many as one in 23 cases of elder abuse are unreported. It has also been estimated that 41.4 percent of the offenses were committed by a family member and another 13.3 percent of victims were described by law enforcement as having close relationships with the perpetrator.

Norris shared a recent example about a senior adult Rhea County couple who employed a man to help care for them. The man dropped the couple off at a trailer park and left them with “no way to obtain their food or medications for several days.” Neighbors in the trailer park reported it to the county sheriff, which led to an arrest of the man on felony charges made possible by the new law.

Senate Bill 1230, the “Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act”, further codifies elder and vulnerable adult abuse and exploitation, creates class C and D felonies for those found guilty of committing these crimes and requires state agencies to submit offenders’ names to the Tenn. Dept. of Health’s Abuse Registry.

“This legislation would keep seniors and vulnerable adults safer by giving law enforcement the tools they need to prosecute dangerous individuals before they have the opportunity to commit additional crimes and harm additional victims,” Rep. Keisling said.

Senate Bill 1192 makes various changes to the regulation of securities under the Tennessee Securities Act of 1980, such as granting the commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Insurance authority to restrict certain exemptions, increasing penalties for violations where senior citizens and adults with certain mental or physical dysfunctions are victims, and altering filing and renewal requirements.

Senate Bill 1267 requires the Tennessee Department of Financial Institutions to consult with financial service providers, the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability and the Department of Human Services to consider ways in which the entities can collaborate to promote education and awareness of the dangers to senior adults regarding financial exploitation and theft, and explore preventative measures that can be taken by vulnerable adults to avoid such dangers.

“These three bills continue the General Assembly’s efforts to address abuse of our state’s seniors and vulnerable adults,” Crowe added, who sponsored legislation last year setting up checks on the people who are working in direct contact with the elderly in home healthcare and hospice. “These are the citizens upon whose shoulders we stand today. I am very proud of the work that our General Assembly has done and continues to do to protect them in cooperation with our Elder Abuse Task Force and other stakeholders. We will continue to look for ways to keep them from being victimized.”