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State and Local Judicial Systems Crack Down on Elder Abuse

By: Atlanta Northcutt -- Reporter for the Southern Standard


The judicial system is working to stop and properly prosecute individuals involved in the financial exploitation or abuse of the elderly.

In 2014, during the District Attorneys General Conference, an elder abuse task force was formed. The Tennessee Legislature had passed a statute to examine laws for financial exploitation and abuse of the elderly and find better ways to protect the victims. 

31st District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis, who serves Warren and Van Buren counties, joined the task force.

"The number of elder abuse and financial exploitation of elderly cases have increased with six or seven cases at the last meeting of the Grand Jury," says Zavogiannis. "Before these new laws were created, there were no specific laws for neglect or financial exploitation of elderly cases. Due to the recognition of these new laws, the number has increased since we can now identify the fact these cases are specifically against an elderly person."

Nine major agencies, including the 31st district attorney’s office, the banking industry, Tennessee Department of Health, and Adult Protective Services met for 18 months to learn about elder abuse and prevention available.

If a person is found guilty in criminal court of financial exploitation or abuse of an elderly person, the information is sent to the Department of Health, which places the individual on a registry to prevent them from getting a job dealing with care in the medical industry, including sitters and caregivers.

Many of the elderly who are affected by these crimes fear being placed in a nursing home or having to prosecute family members. Zavogiannis claims dealing with elderly crimes is more difficult than those involving children since law enforcement can’t place the elderly victims in a safe place. A lot of victims die, can’t remember what happened to them, or don’t want to hurt a loved one by prosecuting them.

Zavogiannis says most of the crimes reported are financial exploitation and thefts. Many of these claims are due to the victim’s bills not being paid or checks bouncing. Zavogiannis also states most of these exploitations are by family members of the victims.

“This is a definite area that needed attention,” says Zavogiannis. “I think we have a lot more work to do, but I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made so far in the state of Tennessee.”

The task force made many recommendations, including creating two groups. One group focused on people over 18 who are physically or mentally disabled, and the other group focused on the elderly. The task force wrote and created laws to protect these individuals.

In 2017, the criminal code of financial exploitation of elderly people was passed. Banks could look into and report scams happening to exploit elderly people. 

The criminal code also increased financial exploitation of someone 70 or older to a felony instead of a Class A misdemeanor, as well as adding mandatory fines. The new statute adds those charged with financial exploitation to be put on the registry. 

Over 10,000 cases in Tennessee were reviewed in a nine-month period in the hopes of preventing cases from becoming lost in the system.

In 2018, a neglect aspect statute was passed focusing on neglect and abandonment. The statute added the charge of first-degree murder if neglect of a victim led to their death, as well as if an individual didn’t report suspicion of elder abuse it would be a Class A misdemeanor.

“We have a duty as human beings to step up when someone is being mistreated. People need to understand you can’t take advantage of these elderly individuals,” said Zavogiannis. “I hope by doing all of this work we can create the environment for the safety of our seniors."

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