Granddaughter, grandson, niece, nephew, paid in-home caregiver, farmhand — these words describe people who are in the position to help and protect elderly or vulnerable adults in our community. Unfortunately, they also describe some of the people who have been convicted of abusing or exploiting an elderly adult in Sullivan County in the past five years.
I, along with district attorneys general across the state, have been working with the Tennessee General Assembly over the past four years to strengthen our criminal statutes pertaining to elder abuse so that they better protect our elderly and vulnerable citizens.
We increased the penalties for the worst crimes committed against them like physical abuse and neglect resulting in injury, we made it a crime to sexually exploit an elderly or vulnerable adult, and we passed a law that allows victims to testify at the beginning of a criminal case so that their testimony isn’t lost if the case is delayed and they become ill or unavailable. This has resulted in greater protections for the elderly and vulnerable, and better tools for police and prosecutors to hold offenders responsible.
We also created VAPITs: Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigate Teams. The Sullivan County VAPIT is made up of representatives from my office, Adult Protective Services, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, Kingsport Police Department, Bristol Tennessee Police Department, Veterans Affairs, CREVAA (Collaborative Response to Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse), and the District Ombudsman over long-term care.
Together, they review every report made to Adult Protective Services, as well as reports made directly to law enforcement. The Sullivan County VAPIT was one of the first to form in the state, and it provides a united effort to protect older adults through improved communication to make sure reported abuse is properly investigated, victims are protected, and abusers are brought to justice. I have dedicated three assistant district attorneys to VAPIT — Mike Filetti, Emily Hutchins and Kristen Rose. They investigate and prosecute these cases and provide training and outreach to the community.
Our diligent work means that our response to these crimes is faster and stronger, but we still have work to do, and we need your help. Any vulnerable or elderly adult could be the victim of abuse or exploitation at the hands of someone they trust. In 2018, the Sullivan County VAPIT reviewed 347 new reports of abuse, neglect or exploitation, but statistics on elder abuse suggest that only one out of 14 cases are ever reported.
If you suspect abuse, neglect or exploitation of an elderly or vulnerable adult, the law requires you to report it. Call 1-888-APSTENN (277-8366} or visit https://reportadultabuse.dhs.tn.gov/ to make a report.