A $320,000 federal grant three years ago may be helping change one of the most tragic problems in our society: elder abuse and neglect. Physical or sexual abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of the elderly has been chronically underreported, and fighting it has been hampered by lack of knowledge and training for law enforcement and social service counselors.

To try to change that, the District Attorney's Office for the 20th Judicial Circuit, which covers Nashville, has been using that grant to train Metro Police officers and counselors on how to recognize the signs of elder abuse and how to respond.

The District Attorney's Office, working with the Adult Protective Services department and Nashville's Sexual Assault Center, have trained 1,320 police officers, 70 detectives and counselors in the last three years. They have learned how to spot personal injuries from nursing home abuse or neglect, intentional acts by family members and caregivers, and financial exploitation -- and they're having an impact.

Already, reports of elder abuse have doubled in the past ten years, according to Helen Allen, program supervisor at Adult Protective Services. There were 9,464 reports in 2009, the latest year from which statistics are available.

"Our counselors used to get five new cases a month," Allen told the Nashville Post in a recent profile of the project. "Now they're getting 20."

Nashville has the highest number of reported elder abuse cases in Middle Tennessee

According to Adult Protective Services, the largest number of reported cases of elder abuse in Middle Tennessee come from Nashville, and 87 percent of the suspects are relatives of the victims. According to one study, only one out of 23 cases of elder abuse ever gets reported, and that's a big problem.

Whether the perpetrator of the abuse or exploitation is a relative, a nursing home worker, or a caregiver, victims are reluctant to complain. Many are embarrassed, while others are afraid the abuse is their own fault.

Others are almost completely reliant on their abusers if they want to continue to live where they are. In many cases, there simply is nowhere for elderly victims of abuse to go if they won't file charges that force abusive caregivers out of their homes. Tennessee currently has no domestic violence shelters for medically fragile seniors.

Elder abuse prosecutions may increase with stricter proposed law

The legislature is considering a law that would classify choking, a common form of elder abuse, as aggravated assault, which would make it a felony. It is currently a misdemeanor. Most forms of elder abuse and financial exploitation are already felonies, a fact that surprised Metro Police detective Michael Park.

"We were sitting in class and we raised our eyebrows," said Park. "It was like, 'That's what we were looking for.'"

Park and other law enforcement officers have been trying to fight elder abuse and exploitation, but they needed stronger tools. Thanks to the training, he now realizes he could fine-tune his investigations to attack the stigma against reporting elder abuse -- by garnering media attention and presenting the problem forcefully to judges.

Still, with both law enforcement and social workers buried in work, it will take cooperation from victims, family members and others to protect vulnerable seniors. Nursing home abuse and neglect lawsuits, willingness to turn in abusive family members, and watchfulness are all going to be necessary.

"I think as a community we might've been a little slow in protecting our elderly," said Detective Park. "But we're catching up."

Source: The Nashville Post, "City's focus on abuse of elderly includes police, social services agencies, the general public," Anne Marshall, March 27, 2011