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Elder Abuse Awareness: Victims are often unable to report what's happening to them

Jeff Bobo • Jun 14, 2019 at 1:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE – Shortly before the death of an 83-year-old Benia Mae Johnson her son became suspicious of some bruises that appeared on her body and placed a hidden video camera in her room.

Johnson, who resided in Sneedville, passed away in 2017 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia.

Because of her condition Johnson wasn’t able to report the crimes being committed against her, and the video wasn't viewed by family until after she passed away.

That video, a portion of which can be seen in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net, revealed physical abuse committed by Johnson’s caretaker CNA (certified nursing assistant) Melissa Stewart, of Sneedville.

During the subsequent criminal investigation Stewart reportedly admitted she disciplined Johnson so she wouldn't scratch bed sores.

Stewart reportedly told an investigator she would “get her by the shoulder and shake her” and she would “be a little angry when I would hit her or shake her” or “I tied her to the bed rail.”

Stewart also admitted to “hitting her, shaking her and bruising her hands” police said.

“I feel it is vital for the public to be informed”

Although the criminal case was tried earlier this year in a Hawkins County courtroom, it was a Hancock County case. The jury found Stewart guilty of five counts of felony elder abuse and she was sentenced to three years probation. She also lost her nursing license, and will be placed on the elder abuse registry for life.”

Johnson’s granddaughter, Jennifer Kinsler of Rogersville, told the Times News she and her family felt the sentence was too lenient, and that Stewart deserved jail time. 

Hopefully others will learn from this case, Kinsler noted, and it will help increase awareness about elder abuse.

“Much like a newborn baby, elders, especially those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia and numerous disabilities are helpless and often completely dependent upon another for their final life stages of care,” Kinsler said. “As a child growing up, I was taught to always respect my elders regardless of their physical/emotional state. As a family member of an elder abuse victim, I feel it is vital for the public to be informed and properly educated about the different types of elder abuse that often occurs.”

Elder Awareness Day in Tennessee 

Although elder abuse sometimes takes the form of physical abuse, there are several type of elder abuse – a fact that Gov. Bill Lee hopes to shine a light on Saturday by proclaiming June 15 Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

The most common types of elder abuse are financial exploitation, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and abandonment.

According to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, every year, an estimated 1 in 10 older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

Research suggests that as few as 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse come to the attention of authorities.

Gov. Lee’s goal in establishing Elder Abuse Awareness Day in Tennessee is improving that ratio.

“They are vulnerable to scammers”

A report released this past week by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance outlined tips for recognizing and addressing elder abuse.

“Older adults are often victims of financial fraud and identity theft because they are vulnerable to scammers,” said TDCI Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak. “This vulnerability stems from the wealth they have accumulated over their careers, their tendency to be trusting, and their increasing isolation from family, friends and caregivers. It is our responsibility as Tennesseans to keep a watchful eye out for signs of elder financial exploitation and promptly reporting any suspicions to the appropriate party.”

“You have a duty to report it”

Hawkins County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Cliff Evans told the Times News that so far in 2019 the HCSO has received 46 elder abuse referrals through the Department of Human services.

“The majority of the referrals we receive turn out to be welfare checks where people are concerned about the safety and well being of vulnerable adults,” Evans said. “Some turn out to be more than that, where this actual abuse going on.”

One current criminal investigation involves a Hawkins County live-in caretaker accused of physical abuse, as well as theft.

“There's actually a Tennessee law that states if you suspect abuse, neglect or exploitation of any person, you have a duty to report it,” Evans said. “That report goes through Adult Protective Services, through the Tennessee Department of Human Services. They take the calls and initiate the initial report, and we work very closely with out DHS investigator Pam Arnold on these cases.”

Evans added, “We go out and check on the people. If it turns out to be just a welfare check, if they're needing services, Pam will set that up — medical, financial help, legal assistance — whatever can be done will be done. Sometimes it's just a situation where the person doesn't get along with their caretaker. If there's no actual abuse going on we might be able to help that person get into another arrangement of who their caretaker is.”

VAPIT (Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Team)

The HCSO has one detective dedicated to elder abuse investigation, and when criminal abuse is detected, the attorney general is consulted, and the appropriate charges placed.

In 2017 the Tennessee General Assembly mandated that each District Attorney General's office establish a VAPIT (Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Team).

Every two months police from each of the city departments meet with the sheriff's office, DHS and the attorney general to review cases individually and determine strategies for each case. 

Twice a year the county VAPITs from the entire Third Judicial District (Greene, Hawkins, Hancock and Hamblen counties) meet and review their cases together.

Unfortunately many elder abuse cases can't be prosecuted because the culprits are in a different state or country.

“People in their elder years are easily scammed”

Con artists prey on the elderly, who they access on the telephone, email or other internet sources.

“People in their elder years are easily scammed,” Evans said. “We have cases all the time involving the phone scams and the lottery scams. We had a case not too long ago of a gentleman who sent thousands of dollars out of state. Their generation grew up in a time when they trusted people and they could take people at their word, and they didn't have scammers out there constantly trying to steal people's money. Unfortunately that's no longer the situation.”

“Check in on them from time to time”

Evans suggests that if you know of an elderly or vulnerable person in your community, to check in on them from time to time and talk with them to see if they need help.

“It can be any adult over 18 who is vulnerable due to any number of mental or physical issues,” Evans noted. “It doesn't have to be an elderly person. Just any adult that is over the age of 18, and if you have reason to believe they are being abused in any way or financially exploited, you have a duty to report that, the same as with child abuse.”

“Know the signs of elder abuse”

The discovery of the abuse against her grandmother was devastating to Kinsler and her family, and the investigative process, trial and sentencing were long and emotionally exhausting.

“Most of us thought the bruises we saw were normal, as elders often get these places on their arms/legs,” Kinsler said. “Little did we know the bruises were a result of being hit, slapped, and shaken by her professional nurse’s assistant. My grandmother was also verbally abused. Most days no one but my grandmother and her CNA was in the home.”

Kinsler added, “She was unable to tell her children or grandchildren of the abuse because of her mental state — Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Throughout this almost two year process, I have learned to never judge a book by its cover. Just because someone appears to be a phenomenal person on the outside does not mean they have a good character or integrity. It’s important to keep check on your elder family members, even in the hands of medical professionals. Know the signs of elder abuse. Document, record, or do whatever you can legally to obtain any evidence of the abuse and report it immediately to your local authorities as well as Adult Protective Services.”

Anyone who suspects elder abuse in Hawkins county can call Hawkins County Central dispatch at (423) 272-7121 or the TDCI Adult Protective Services toll free hotline at 1-888-APS-TENN (1888-277-8366).

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