Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp described the excitement and sense of urgency in their effort, "Our task force members are excited about this effort because they recognize the need to take specific steps to protect our vulnerable citizens, seniors and incapacitated adults. We have already seen a significant increase in the number of referrals of these cases to law enforcement and prosecutions since forming our task force. Today's meeting was an important way to continue that momentum."
The task force is a collaborative effort formed by Commonwealth's Attorney Chuck Slemp earlier this year to combat and prevent abuse and financial exploitation of seniors and incapacitated adults. The first meeting of the task force was held in June 2017. Since that date, law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, task force members and community partners have been working together in Wise County to address the issue of senior abuse.
Slemp said, "At our meeting today we developed a coordinated system to ensure that senior abuse cases are given high priority at each stage of the case, from the investigation by adult protective services and law enforcement to prosecution in court. We discussed barriers to prosecution of these cases and the task force voted to recommend five specific changes to existing law to prevent these tragic crimes before they happen."
Delegate Terry Kilgore is a member of the task force and has comitted to addressing this issue. Kilgore said, "Our current law has several loopholes that make it possible for dishonest individuals to take advantage of our seniors. The proposals discussed today are simple and common-sense solutions that will make a difference. I am committed to making sure the General Assembly takes a look at this important issue next session."
The task force voted to recommend five legislative proposals, submitted by members of the task force. They include provisions to criminalize an agent's use of a power of attorney for personal gain, a requirement for two witness signatures on a power of attorney for it to be effective, the creation of a hearsay exception for seniors' testimony in cases of abuse or neglect, and a measure to prohibit unlicensed home health care workers from accepting gifts or money given by patients in excess of $100 per year. Finally, another proposal would require Commonwealth's Attorneys offices across the state to hold multidisciplinary team meetings, like the Senior Abuse Task Force created in Wise, to address senior abuse and neglect cases.
Multiple law enforcement agencies were represented at the meeting for a training presentation and discussion on cases with prosecutors. Assistant Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Ken Lammers led the training segment of the meeting.
Wise County Sheriff Ronnie Oakes said, "We are happy to have this additional resource for our area law enforcement professionals on one of the most important issues we face in this county. My deputies will continue to work hard to protect our citizens from all forms of abuse in later life."
Seniors make up the fastest growing segment of the population in Southwestern Virginia. As the population grows, so too are the number of crimes and scams targeting older adults. According to statistics from the Virginia Department of Social Services, elder abuse affects an estimated five million people each year, as few as one in twenty-four cases of elder abuse is reported to authorities, and roughly half of people with dementia are abused or neglected by caregivers.
The task force will begin meeting regularly starting in 2018 as a multidisciplinary team to discuss specific cases of senior abuse or financial exploitation. Victim advocate Joni Coleman will lead these meetings. Coleman, who serves as Wise County Victim Witness Director, described the effort as essential. Coleman said, "I think it is important that we meet regularly with law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim advocates. These meetings are essential to make sure no case falls through the cracks."
Members are also planning to seek state and federal grants to help funding and provide various training sessions for the community on ways to protect seniors in the coming year.