Judy Hardwick, a program specialist with the Alabama Department of Human Resources, spoke at a workshop on elder abuse Thursday at the gymnasium of Parker Memorial Baptist Church. She said about half of such incidents go unreported, and the reports themselves continue to increase in number.
Residents and professionals filled the church gym to learn more about the problem. Sponsored by the East Alabama Commission’s Community Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, Thursday’s workshop was the fifth such event held in Calhoun County in recent years. The statewide program investigates complaints affecting long-term care residents and advocates on their behalf.
Evelyn Stephens, 80, came to the workshop out of curiosity. Stephens said she doesn’t know anyone affected by elder abuse or neglect, but she wanted to hear about the topic from experts.
That’s what Monica Rowe said the workshop was intended to do. Rowe, the project administrator and lead ombudsman for the commission’s program, said the workshops are meant to educate the public on elder abuse and on resources that aid the aging.
“Our seniors are the most vulnerable, and there are 85-plus million baby boomers,” Rowe said, explaining that the job of protecting the elderly continues to grow as the U.S. population gets older.
Hardwick explained to the attendees that DHR investigates reports of abuse and neglect for anyone age 18 or older, who because of a physical or mental disability is unable to protect himself or herself and has no one willing or able to provide that protection. The agency also investigates reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation of anyone over the age of 60, regardless of a disability.
Exploitation is defined by state law as spending or using someone’s money, property or resources without their consent, or the consent of their legal guardian, Hardwick said.
“And we are seeing more and more reports of exploitation coming into our county departments,” Hardwick said.
In fiscal 2012, the state DHR received more than 5,000 reports of adult abuse, neglect, exploitation or imminent cases of such problems. Within the first seven months of the current fiscal year, DHR had taken more than 3,500 reports, Hardwick said.
Hardwick believes the rise in reports is due to increased awareness about what elder abuse and neglect is, and how to report it.
Virginia Moore-Bell, director of the state Long-term Care Ombudsman Program, applauded a new law aimed at curbing crimes against seniors. Moore-Bell said the law, which went into effect in May, is already increasing awareness about what constitutes crimes against adults.
The Protecting Alabama’s Elders Act allows for anyone over the age of 60, regardless of disability, protection under law from elder abuse, neglect or financial exploitation. The old law stated a person had to have some form of mental impairment before charges of financial exploitation could be filed. The new law creates additional penalties for those crimes, including the ability to prosecute as first-degree, second-degree or third-degree, depending upon the person’s intent and severity of harm to the victim.
The new law also makes possible criminal penalties in the event a guardian, conservator or agent under power of attorney makes an unauthorized transfer of an elderly person’s money or property.
Crimes against seniors have been overlooked for too long, Moore-Bell explained. She believes the new law will do a better job at protecting seniors.
Anyone can make a report to DHR, Hardwick said. All that’s needed is the address of the person the report is meant to help. Hardwick added, however, that the victim’s name and information about the incident can help DHR investigators.
Reports can be made anonymously, Hardwick said, but if a caller gives a name to DHR during the conversation, agency policy requires the name be recorded.
“The best way to do that,” Hardwick said of reporting anonymously, “is to never give your name.”
To report an instance of adult abuse, neglect or exploitation during business hours, Hardwick recommended placing a call to the Alabama Department of Human Resources adult abuse hotline at 1-800-458-7214. Calls can also be made to county DHR offices. After business hours, and in the event of an emergency, Hardwick recommended calling local law enforcement.
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.