NASHVILLE - Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R- Chattanooga, and other lawmakers have unveiled a trio of bills aimed at protecting the elderly and other vulnerable Tennesseans from abuse.
The bills are intended to expand "systemic protection" for victims of physical, mental and financial abuse, imposing tougher penalties on perpetrators convicted of the offenses.
Among other things, the three bills would add elder abuse as an aggravating factor for juries to consider in death penalty cases.
Bankers and financial advisers would gain new whistle-blower protections in cases where they suspect elderly Tennesseans are being exploited.
"We have to address abuse," Norris said Monday at a news conference with lawmakers, prosecutors, bankers and senior advocates.
Noting seniors represent "one of the fastest [growing] demographic segments in our country," Norris said physical, sexual and financial fraud shot up by some 20 percent in the U.S. between 2009 and 2013. And it remains an under-reported crime, he added.
All three measures come out of an Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Abuse Task Force and are intended to build on a 2016 law sponsored by Norris and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, which established Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams in the state.
The teams operate in all 31 of Tennessee's judicial districts and seek to foster cooperation and information sharing between different government agencies whose mission includes protecting elderly and vulnerable adults.
"Financial exploitation robs elderly victims of their money and their dignity," said Gardenhire, a retired financial adviser. "It also can rob them of their independence and can even force them into depending on government assistance, despite their best efforts to save for their golden years."
As a financial adviser, Gardenhire said he witnessed instances of abuse, sometimes by seniors' own children. "They come in and suck the money out of their [parents'] accounts."
The senator is co- sponsoring the bill dealing with financial abuse, which he said "gives someone immunity to pick up the phone and call somebody to say, 'I think Grandma is being taken advantage of.'"
District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis in the 31st Judicial District, which is comprised of Van Buren and Warren counties, said she's seen an increase in abuse that's "just devastating" during her tenure as a prosecutor.
Components of the three bills would elevate how some crimes are classified, thereby increasing amounts of fines and prison time, turning some current misdemeanors into felonies, Zavogiannis said.
Norris said elderly abuse is a silent crisis in which crimes "often go unreported, leaving its helpless victims to suffer silently. And, far too frequently, it happens at the hand of those whom they trust the most."
Incapacitation, shame, fear of losing independence or "simply being unaware of available resources, discourages victims from reporting abuse," Norris said. "Often, because the abuser may be a family member, the individual may also be fearful of reprisals."
Lawmakers say studies show reported cases of assault and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults have increased by 20 percent or more over the last decade.
According to estimates, as many as one in 14 cases of elder abuse are unreported. Other estimates indicate 41.4 percent of offenses were committed by a family member. Another 13.3 percent of victims were described by law enforcement as having close relationships with the perpetrator.
The legislation is being supported by AARP and the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability.
"It's time that we stop it," said Jim Shulman, executive director of the Commission on Aging and Disability. "Some of the stories are just horrendous."
To boost protection and penalties, the lawmakers introduced the following bills:
* Senate Bill 1230, the "Elderly and Vulnerable Adult Protection Act," which adds on existing criminal laws impacting elder and vulnerable adult abuse and exploitation. It creates class C and D felonies for those found guilty of committing these crimes and requires state agencies to submit offenders' names to the Tennessee Department of Health's Abuse Registry.
* Senate Bill 1192 makes various changes to state regulation of securities. That includes granting the commissioner of the Department of Commerce and Insurance authority to restrict certain exemptions, increasing penalties for violations where senior citizens and adults with certain mental or physical dysfunctions are victims and altering filing and renewal requirements.
* Senate Bill 1267 requires the state Department of Financial Institutions to consult with financial service providers, the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability and the Department of Human Services to consider ways all can collaborate to promote education and awareness of the dangers to vulnerable adults regarding financial exploitation.