Joint effort to tackle elder abuse

Tracci

CENTRAL VIRGINIA

Several agencies across the state are teaming up to combat the abuse of elderly residents in the city and county.

Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Tracci announced Wednesday that his office has united with local attorneys, law enforcement and others to create the Jefferson Area Coalition to End Elder Abuse.

The first of its kind in the area, the task force is taking aim at those who exploit people aged 65 and older. Whether it's physical abuse, financial exploitation, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment, the group intends to connect its collective resources and fight those who hurt senior citizens.

"The prevalence of elder abuse is clear," Tracci said at a news conference Wednesday. "What [has been] lacking is a multijurisdictional mechanism to better prevent, identify, refer and prosecute elder abuse and exploitation."

Tracci's office is joined by the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and the city and the county's police departments, sheriff's offices and Adult Protective Services, as well as the FBI, state police, attorneys, elder advocates, area banks and several others on a growing list of partners.

While the incidence of crimes involving elder abuse around Central Virginia is not necessarily rising, the group is taking a proactive approach to a prevalent issue around the country. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that approximately 10 percent of people over 65 have been the victims of elder abuse, according to a 2015 study. While that number may seem high, the center states that cases of elder abuse often go unreported.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Huber, who also spoke Wednesday, noted that elder abuse is "often committed by individuals who are trusted by the victim," and that those with dementia are at a higher risk. He added that as the baby boomer generation moves into seniority, the "aging population gives those looking to prey on unsuspecting seniors more potential victims to target."

Considering the allure of Charlottesville and Albemarle County to retirees, the potential for elder abuse in Central Virginia may continue to grow.

"We have a growing population — which is a great thing — but with a growing population comes the potential for abuse and exploitation," Tracci said.

The task force started to form last year when Tracci, who had not yet been elected to his current seat, spoke with Doris Gelbman, a local attorney who specializes in elder law. If elected, Tracci would form a task force to aid elderly victims — an effort Gelbman said she's long rallied for.

Gelbman said she's received some pushback from officials in the past about putting together such a task force, as investigating such crimes can be difficult and time consuming. Gelbman counters that by streamlining communication and cooperation between each of the agencies and the resources involved in elder abuse, those difficulties can be mitigated.

Following Tracci's election, the group began finding support from all over the city and county. Newly appointed Albemarle County police Chief Ron Lantz said Tracci "didn't have to ask [him] twice," and prosecutor Joe Platania said the Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney's Office was on board, as well.

"From the city's perspective, the most important contribution of the task force is education and prevention, coupled with a set protocol for intake, investigation and prosecution of these very difficult cases," Platania said.

Indeed, the task force will focus both on enhancing the prosecution of perpetrators while also working to educate the community about the various forms of elder abuse, officials said.

"Much of the responsibility to keep out seniors safe will fall on you, the community, to educate yourselves and the seniors in your lives about the dangers of abuse," Huber said. The task force, which already has accumulated case referrals since it was formed, will meet on a quarterly basis, but representatives expect to be in communication on a daily basis.

Gelbman noted during the conference that victims of elder abuse often do not report their cases due to embarrassment — but by doing so, they allow the perpetrators to continue victimizing others.

"You must come to us," Gelbman urged. "We will help you, we will stop them from stealing your money, abusing you, neglecting you or hurting you."

She added that perpetrators of elder abuse should not rest easy in Central Virginia.

"We will find you, we will collect evidence, we will indict you, we will prosecute you and we will convict you," Gelbman said.

Dean Seal can be reached at dseal@dailyprogress.com or (434) 978-7268.

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