Georgia lawmakers this year handed seniors and their advocates several victories in their fight against the growing problem of elder abuse. Among them are tougher background checks for caretakers and a new statewide elder-abuse registry.
A new law will require employees with direct access to residents in nursing homes and other licensed senior care communities to clear an FBI fingerprint background check. The measure will help home care providers find out if applicants have been abusive in previous positions, and weed out current employees with a history of abuse.
That information will be put on a statewide elder-abuse registry so that anyone wanting to hire a caretaker can check the database.
The measure won’t kick in until 2021, giving elder-care facilities three years to complete comprehensive background checks on current employees and set up the procedure for new hires. The registry will be created immediately using a federal grant.
Advocates for the aged have long wanted to create a registry to prevent the hiring of caretakers with a known history of abusing vulnerable adults.
“There’s certainly room to improve it after it’s in place, but it’s a great start just getting the comprehensive background checks,” said Kathy Floyd, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.
Currently, licensed care facilities are required to conduct a limited one-state and one-name background check on employees. The tighter scrutiny would close loopholes and catch offenders from other states or those who may have changed their name.
Georgia is one of only a few states that doesn’t already mandate fingerprinting, said Heather Strickland, assistant special agent for at-risk adults for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“This will certainly help and make sure those working with the elderly don’t have a past history of abuse,” Strickland said.
Advocates for the aged made elder abuse and the registry top legislative priorities this year. Vicki Johnson, chair of the Georgia Council on Aging, called the outcome “a great victory for seniors.”
“Both the council and CO-AGE have worked over the years to ensure that older adults, disabled persons and other vulnerable populations are safe and protected from exploitation,” Johnson said.
The state’s senior population, at 11 percent now, continues to grow. And with it has been an explosive growth in elder abuse.
Since 2010, reports of elder abuse have increased 550 percent, according to the Georgia Council on Aging. Yet only a small portion of these crimes are ever reported, said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.
Nationwide, it’s estimated that one in 10 older Americans are victims of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, and that for every case of elder abuse, 23.5 cases go unreported, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse.
For the past five years, state legislators have increased funding for Adult Protective Services caseworkers, hired additional GBI agents to focus on elder-abuse crimes, and set aside funds for an elder-abuse attorney to prosecute cases. Lawmakers have also increased training for law enforcement through the Division of Aging and stiffened penalties on unlicensed personal care homes.
Two other bills to combat elder abuse were also passed by lawmakers this year. One is a trafficking bill that will crack down on personal care home operators who prey on elderly and at-risk adults in need of housing. In many cases, these adults are forced to live in substandard housing in exchange for turning over all of their Social Security benefits or other financial allowances, Floyd said.
Another bill passed will allow for better coordination and communication between law enforcement and Adult Protective Services on sensitive abuse cases. The goal is to have multidisciplinary teams working together to form an elder-abuse task force in each judicial district.
ENGAGE with CO-AGE
Georgia Council on Aging volunteers will host meetings in communities across the state April 16-20 to share updates from the legislative session and discuss upcoming senior issues.
Meetings in metro Atlanta include:
• Wesley Woods Towers; Monday, April 16, 10-11 a.m., Wesley Woods Towers, 1825 Clifton Road, Atlanta.
• Clairmont Oaks; Monday, April 16, 2-3 p.m., Clairmont Oaks, 441 Clairemont Ave., Decatur.
• Forsyth County Senior Services, Thursday, April 19, 2-3 p.m., Forsyth County Senior Services, 595 Dahlonega St., Cumming.