Breaking the Silence: Prosecutors work to crack down on elderly abuse

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Millions of older adults are abused, neglected and exploited in the United States every day, according to the American Society on Aging. Here in East Tennessee and across the state, lawmakers are reevaluating their approach to prosecuting elder abuse.

“I would have died. They would never come and checked on me,” said Hazel.

Hazel says she was abused for six months last year. We are not revealing her identity nor the alleged abusers’.

Disabled from a series of stokes, Hazel was hospitalized and spent weeks in rehabilitation in early 2018. While in rehab, she says relatives were supposed to pay her rent, but she says they didn’t. As a result, Hazel lost her apartment. She says the relatives then moved her.  

“They put me up there where they lived in a shed pretty much,” Hazel said.

Hazel said she got water from a hose and put it in buckets to bathe.    

BREAKING THE SILENCE: Elder Abuse Awareness 

“And I had a potty chair. I had to empty it over a fence,” she said.

Finally, another relative called the county for a wellness check.

“She is doing phenomenal. She is doing so much better when she first came to us,” said Belinda McCullah, an elderly case manager.

“Nobody wants to think this is going to happen to their grandmother or their elderly mother,” said Court Advocate Aaron Lawson.

Aaron Lawson is a court advocate for the elderly. Belinda McCullah is an advocate case manager for seniors. 

McCullah got Hazel into a safe place and is familiar with other cases of similar treatment of the elderly.  

“They don’t want to report it because they may blame themselves, but, they’re not at fault,” said McCullah.

“Elder abuse happens in the shadows. It happens everywhere,” said Knox County Assistant District Attorney Andrea Kline.

Kline helps lead a special unit that prosecutes cases of elder abuse and neglect. 

“Oftentimes the folks who are doing these things are people who are close to them. Family members, caregivers, people that they trust,” she said.

Tennessee’s Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act now has some teeth. Over the last three years, the state legislature has strengthened and tightened criminal laws to protect the elderly from abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. These crimes are now prosecuted aggressively. 

“Lack of awareness has been a real problem. That’s changing. People are starting to understand, become aware it is an issue. It is a crime,” said Kline.

Those convicted will appear on the vulnerable adult abuse registry.

“If you are placed on that registry as the result of a criminal conviction, you are on there for life,” Kline said.

Hazel is doing much better these days.

“I’m just great. I have a home. I have food,” she said. “I don’t want other old people to be treated wrong anymore. I’m doing okay. God is looking out for me.”

There has been no charge in her case yet. 

By raising our voices together, everyone can make a difference in the fight against elder abuse. Reporting suspected senior abuse is the law in Tennessee.

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