Officials warn community of elder abuse

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COLUMBIA - Elder law attorneys and the Department of Health and Senior Services are warning the community to keep a close eye out for elder abuse cases.

The World Health Organization classifies elder abuse as "a single, or repeated act, or lack of appropriate action, occurring within any relationship where there is an expectation of trust, which causes harm or distress to an older person."

In Missouri, more than 30,000 reports of adult abuse/neglect/exploitation were reported between October, 2016 and September, 2017.

According to the DHSS, 628 cases were reported in Boone County, 319 in Cole County, 286 in Pettis County and 368 in Phelps County.

Here is the breakdown of the different categories of elder abuse cases reported:

"I would say that the cases that we get are primarily financial crimes," said Boone County Assistant Prosecutor, Roger Johnson.

Elder abuse used to be a separate offense under Missouri law. As of January 1, 2017, elder abuse falls under the assault statutes and the elder person would be categorized as a special victim, according to Johnson.

The DHSS sees more cases of elder abuse in communities rather than in nursing homes.

"In nursing homes, there are more checks and balances. You have more people involved with supervision," Johnson said. "You're less likely to have a situation where somebody is exclusively dependent on one person for their care."

Johnson said isolation is also a factor when it comes to elder abuse cases. The elder is often isolated from their family and friends by a caretaker and then taken advantage of.

"I know it's a challenge in some cases because people want to maintain their independence and feel more comfortable in their homes, but it increases the risk because they may be more isolated in the community," Johnson said.

Heather McCreery, an elder law attorney, said many cases of elder abuse go unreported. 

"A lot of the times the victims are embarrassed. Embarrassment that this happened to them," McCreery said. "Sometimes they're even unwilling to testify against a family member. They don't want to see a family member prosecuted."

The DHSS offers a adult abuse and neglect hotline from 7 a.m. to midnight for anyone to report cases of abuse of a senior or disabled adult. 

However, McCreery says some clients have expressed frustrations with the hotline. They're left on hold for a long time and have a hard time getting in touch with someone.

"It's probably a hard enough choice to decide to call, and then you call and nothing happens or you can't get through and that is very frustrating," McCreery said. "We need to protect those people out there that are vulnerable."