Vulnerable adults are defined in the law as anyone over the age of 18 who because of a mental or physical disability cannot manage their resources, perform daily tasks or protect themselves from abusive situations.
“For years it was embarrassing to report it,” Staubus said of child abuse. “We’ve seen a tremendous transition where more and more people will report child abuse so that we can help children and hold the wrong-doers accountable. We’re hoping the same process will happen with vulnerable adults.”
The new law requires all Tennessee district attorneys to establish a multi-disciplinary vulnerable adult protective investigative team, or VAPIT, to coordinate investigation of cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults.
“This law is based on some tried and true techniques and foundations that are used in child abuse cases,” Staubus said. “We want people to know that this team exists, that this process exists, that these resources exist and if they know of any adults they suspect are being abused sexually or physically or being neglected or financially being taken advantage of to report that.”
Reports can be made by calling Tennessee’s Adult Protective Services hotline at 1-888-277-8366 or by visiting https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov. Anyone that reports to APS is kept anonymous under the law but if they’re a witness to a crime or criminal activity they could be called as a witness.
“I’ve got some pending [cases] now in which people have almost literally been starved to death,” said Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Amy Hinkle. “There’s actually been several of those reported in the last month.”
The law will provide more outreach and awareness, better trained officers to detect vulnerable adult abuse, and more resources to help victims.
Sullivan County’s VAPIT has already met and team members have attended training. Staubus said officials have learned that outreach and awareness is an important part of cases being reported and prosecuted.
Exploitation of vulnerable adults is on the rise in Sullivan County, especially of the elderly, according to Staubus. The population of adults that are 65 years or older is also increasing, which means there are more people to take advantage of, he said.
“Many of these cases are driven by people that need drugs or need money,” Staubus said. “So they turn to their grandmother, their elderly aunt, or their neighbor they’re supposed to be taking care of and what they end up doing is stealing their [prescription] drugs or stealing their money.”
While more people are beginning to report cases of exploitation, Hinkle said, neglect of vulnerable adults - especially the elderly - is also on the rise in the county, she said.
There have been several cases of people being left in their homes with no food or medication and in filthy environments, including in urine and feces. In one case, Hinkle said, a woman fell out of her bed and laid there for 12 hours before someone arrived to help her.
The team will also reinforce the goal of the future Sullivan County Family Justice Center, Staubus said. The center will be a one-stop location for victims of domestic violence to receive help from law enforcement, the Department of Children’s Services, legal services, the Children’s Advocacy Center and Abuse Alternatives.
“We want to make more of the public aware that we’re making a concentrated effort to protect vulnerable adults,” Staubus said. “We want to help these folks and the people that perpetrate the crimes; we want to do everything that the law allows us to do to punish them for what they’ve done.”
Staubus expects more programs will be developed in the future and awareness of vulnerable adult abuse will improve. The goal, Staubus said, is not only to prosecute cases but to prevent the crimes from occurring.
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New Tennessee law focuses on combatting vulnerable adult abuse