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Training effort bolsters enforcement of elder abuse

Elder abuse takes many forms and, thanks to a national grant program, law enforcement officers in Western North Carolina now know what to look for.

In 2007, the Department of Justice awarded the 30th Judicial District Sexual Assault Alliance a grant to train law enforcement in the seven western counties how to identify the signs of elder abuse.

The grant comes to maturity in October and so far the program has trained 200 law enforcement officers and over 1,500 individuals who regularly deal with the elderly from church volunteers to hospital workers.

Michael Rich, director of the 30th Alliance, said the organization recognized the need to train law enforcement personnel on elder abuse because cases weren’t getting prosecuted.

“What we discovered in the early ‘90s with domestic violence is that unless law enforcement is trained to use the statutes, they won’t use them,” Rich said.

Because 85 to 90 percent of elder abuse crimes are perpetrated by family members, the cases were confusing to prosecute.

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“It used to be that the police would say, ‘This is a family problem and we’re not getting involved,’ and now they’re realizing it’s a family problem but it’s also a crime,” Rich said.

Stats indicate the training program is working. The first year of the grant, the 30th Alliance dealt with 18 cases involving elder abuse. The next year the number increased to 27. This fiscal year, the agency has already addressed 27 cases in just the first six months.

Rich said the faltering economy has also played a role, leading to an increase in financial exploitation of elderly family members.

Detective Jeff Haynes of the Waynesville Police Department has acted as the law enforcement training liaison for the grant. Haynes, who also spent 15 years in the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, said the trainings have created a better working relationship between groups that deal with elder abuse issues.

“By raising the consciousness through the grants, the law enforcement personnel, the social services and the courts are coming together,” said Haynes. “You might not see the impact directly on the statutes but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Haynes said North Carolina still needs to strengthen the statutes with regard to elder abuse. The state put specific elder abuse statutes on the books in the mid-1990s.

“We use them but they’re weak in the state of North Carolina and hopefully we’re moving towards some improvement at the legislative level,” Haynes said.

Next month, the first successful indictment relying solely on elder abuse statutes will be heard in Jackson County Court. For Rich and Haynes, the case, which centers on financial abuse, represents the culmination of a colossal effort.

“The beauty of it is that due to the grant and the training, the awareness was there and the people involved knew what to do,” said Haynes.

The WNC elder abuse grant was one of only 10 awarded around the country, mostly to programs in major metropolitan areas like Dallas, Los Angeles, and Denver.

The 16-hour training deals with physical, sexual and financial aspects of elder abuse. For Haynes, one of the most important messages for law enforcement officers is that elder abuse isn’t the problem of the poor.

“The face of elder abuse runs the gamut. I’ve dealt with cases with wealthy families all the way down to the people who don’t have anything,” Haynes said. “The vast majority of the families view this as an entitlement issue.”

Rich believes elder abuse is an issue that will continue to emerge as the population ages.

“We’re just a handful of folks that are advocates for elders in abuse situations, and if we’re not doing it there won’t be anybody,” Rich said. “The way the demographics are going there will be more and more seniors, and the need will increase.”

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