Monday, June 18, 2007

Tennessee Won't Let Elder-Abusers off the Hook

Crime now a felony that can't be erasedBy SHEILA WISSNER Staff Writer

Kathy Gentry was dumbfounded when she arrived at the hospital to find that part of her 78-year-old father's right ear lobe had been cut off.

An investigation revealed that James Graham, who had Alzheimer's disease, had been assaulted by an aide in the nursing home where he had been living. Gentry could not believe anyone would do such a thing.

"I was shocked. Totally shocked,'' Gentry said. "He was a very sweet, quiet man.''
Crimes against people like Graham in their twilight years are on the rise, state figures show, and are expected to continue growing as baby boomers age, experts say.

Now, people convicted of such crimes in Tennessee will have a felony on their records because of legislation the General Assembly approved in the past two weeks. The governor signed it into law last week.

Another new law prohibits those who abuse the elderly from getting their records expunged. That law goes into effect July 1.

"These people need to be dealt with harshly,'' said Rep. Dennis Ferguson, a Midtown Democrat and one of the bills' sponsors. "The sad thing is that we are just now doing this. This is something that should have been done years ago."

Misdemeanors common Graham was one among thousands of senior Tennesseans who are the victims of abuse, neglect or financial exploitation each year.
Many crimes against seniors, such as simple assault and theft, have been misdemeanors in Tennessee, carrying penalties of 11 months, 29 days in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
First-time misdemeanor offenders often are offered pretrial or judicial diversion, forms of probation that allow defendants to escape criminal records if they stay out of trouble for a period of time.

The actual amount of time an offender serves in jail might not increase that much under the new law. That's because the sentence for such a felony — one to three years — usually is reduced so that the offender serves only 30 percent of the sentence, said Tommy Thompson, district attorney for Wilson, Smith and several other counties. Fines can be up to $3,000.
Felons lose their right to own guns and to vote, however. And many employers won't hire job applicants with felony records, Thompson noted.

None of that happened to Graham's assailant. The aide accused of assaulting him the day before Christmas 2005 was arrested but later received pretrial diversion. That means the charges are slated to be dismissed and the aide's record expunged if she has no further problems with the law.

"She is going to get off scot-free,'' said Gentry, who lives in Greene County. Her father died six months after being injured. "I was very upset. And I still am.''

Abuse cases are rising

Such cases against elder Tennesseans and other adults who have difficulty caring for themselves are on the rise.

They increased 25 percent over the past five years, according to statistics kept by the state Department of Human Services' Adult Protective Services Division.

Many cases are heartbreaking and inconceivable, law enforcement officials said. They have ranged from caregivers' stealing morphine from patches on the bodies of terminally ill patients to family members' making off with money from aging relatives to nursing home workers' raping bed-ridden residents.

"I think the woman who was starved to death was the most disturbing by far,'' Thompson said of the ordeal suffered by Orgie Dean Bush in the 1990s.
The Smith County woman, who had health problems, was beaten with anything handy — PVC pipe, a vacuum cleaner handle, a toy rifle, a baseball bat.
She was locked in a closet for hours at a time, forced to eat feces and drink urine. Finally the 55-year-old woman was starved to death by her caregivers, one of whom was convicted of her murder.

"I guess they just got tired of her,'' Thompson said. "I don't know what it was."
That was an egregious case with plenty of evidence, including an autopsy report showing freshly broken ribs.

But in many cases, the evidence is less clear-cut, resulting in misdemeanor charges such as simple assault or theft that carry short jail time, or none at all, authorities said.
Figures compiled by legislative researchers show that an estimated 25 such cases are prosecuted as misdemeanors each year across the state. More than half of the abusers serve jail time, and the rest receive judicial diversion, giving them the opportunity to ask the court later to have their records wiped clean.

Many law enforcement officials and professionals working with victims lauded the legislative effort to elevate all such crimes to felonies and to block abusers from having their crimes erased from the public record.

"I would definitely support that,'' said Jason Orsbon, a detective in Metro Police's domestic violence division.
Gentry said she was pleased when told the legislation had passed. But she said more needed to be done.

"They have such a way to go before they are able to help these people,'' Gentry said, adding that more monitoring of nursing facilities is needed.
Across the nation, states also are wrestling with a steady increase in the number of assaults and financial crimes against vulnerable adults, said Paul Greenwood, who heads the elder abuse unit at the San Diego district attorney's office.

Greenwood said he was pleased to see Tennessee elevating these crimes to felonies.
"I was rather shocked," he said, "as I have spent time traveling around the country teaching on the subject, to find that in a lot of states, these crimes are still being perceived as being misdemeanors, and it baffles me why that is."


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Dawn said...

Thank you for posting this article. I'm looking for the amendments to the Tennessee elder abuse law, but have not been able to find them yet. If you know where I should look please let me know.