Georgia legislators hope to close some loopholes in the state’s elder abuse law with a bill that would boost law enforcement tools in fighting these crimes.
State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) told reporters Friday that House Bill 72 aims to build on legislation passed in 2013 to protect the state’s elderly and disabled adults from abuse and financial exploitation.
“We are on the leading edge’’ in fighting elder abuse, said Willard, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
State lawmakers and law enforcement officials recently have focused more attention on personal care homes that are unlicensed.
Georgia has about 1,800 licensed personal care homes, which provide food, lodging and some personal care services. Residents of these facilities include seniors and people with mental illnesses and disabilities.
The number of complaints about unlicensed facilities in Georgia rose from 253 in fiscal year 2013 to 293 in fiscal 2014, which ended June 30, lawmakers were told last year. Operators of these facilities often move residents to different locations to escape detection.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan said the legislation would add more protection against financial exploitation and allow elder abuse cases to come to trial more quickly.
It would also add a RICO provision so that prosecutors can pursue organizations or individuals who target seniors and the disabled, said Chuck Spahos, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia.
Facility operators can steal Social Security benefits, food stamps and other benefits, partly through identity theft.
“They are making a lot of money,’’ said state Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
The target population is also growing. Roughly 12 percent of Georgians are 65 or older, said Kathy Floyd, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.
She told GHN that there has been a rise in elder abuse in Georgia, coupled with more public awareness of these situations. Prosecutions of these crimes are increasing, she added.
Floyd cited the guilty pleas by two operators of an unlicensed Cobb County personal care home, where six women were forced to stay in a basement with inadequate bathroom facilities. The two were accused of providing inadequate food, shelter and medicine, the Marietta Daily Journal reported.
Each drew a 10-year sentence.
A case in Commerce, involving similarly egregious allegations, is still being prosecuted, the GBI’s Keenan said.
The owner and 17 employees of Alzheimer’s Care of Commerce – a licensed facility — have been charged with assaulting and illegally restraining patients. The GBI and other law enforcement agencies raided the facility in 2013.
That case showed authorities the need for additional resources, Keenan said, citing the relocation of residents safely to other facilities.