New local efforts to identify, prevent and prosecute elder abuse will soon bring more caseworkers into Osceola County communities.
Elder abuse is a crime that’s among the most under-reported in the country and takes many different forms including physical, sexual, emotional and/or psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment and financial exploitation.
The Department of Children and Families and the Florida Department of Elder Affairs lead state efforts for investigating elder abuse. But local agencies are working together to better detect and report the crime, prosecute perpetrators and get help for victims.
A community-coordinated program has now brought together Help Now of Osceola, the Osceola Council on Aging, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office to fight crimes against senior citizens.
Led by Help Now – the county’s only domestic violence shelter and lead support agency for victims – the effort was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. FCADV is a network of shelters that administers state and federal funds for domestic violence centers and operates Florida's reporting hotline, which links callers to the nearest domestic violence center and provides translation assistance.
“We’ve got a long way ahead, but we’re changing things and establishing a new culture of prevention for our elderly,” said Help Now’s Jacqueline Padilla, coordinator for the new interagency program.
Representatives from local law enforcement agencies, government services, nursing homes and nonprofit advocacy organizations for the elderly and veterans have been meeting for almost two years to study the problem from a multidisciplinary approach, undergo training and pass along that training to their respective offices.
The group is awaiting approval from the Department of Justice to move forward with an outreach program that will put more caseworkers into communities around Osceola -- from private homes to assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.
“What’s happening is amazing because we’ve now set up communications and streamlined processes, such as taking victim statements, between the different agencies,” Padilla said.
“I think one of the difficult parts of this issue is when there is a lack of communications between the agencies. One major thing that solves this is knowing each other and understanding the different procedures.”
Each participating organization brings specific services and investigation techniques and processes vary, but there is surprisingly little overlap or redundancy, Padilla said.
“It’s now a matter of getting out there and reaching these folks and educating the community,” she said. “Caregiver stress is not an excuse anymore. It used to be a justification perpetrators used often. Unfortunately, some people with control the over an elderly person can be careless and greedy.”
Caregivers to people with a lack of capacity, whether a family member or a professional, are accountable for their welfare. Elder abuse is generally more difficult to detect than cases of child or spousal abuse because seniors tend to be more homebound.
“We’re ready to go out into the community and attack the problem. We don’t expect them to come to an office. We want to help them directly through welfare checks, counseling and case management,” Padilla said.
There’s no data to analyze yet, but the coordinated efforts and new outreach program are expected to increase reports of elder abuse. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Padilla said.
“We have strategies to alleviate the gaps” such as the one for those aged 50-65, most of whom do not have access to social security income or elder care services, she said.
During the 2017-18 fiscal year, 41,160 incidents of abuse, neglect and exploitation of Florida elders were reported to DCF, according to the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.
One in 10 older people is abused, but incidents of elder abuse are reported in less than 5 percent of cases, primarily because the most common perpetrator is a relative, friend, neighbor, or caregiver whom the elder trusts or fears, according to a 2018 analysis by the Florida Senate.
Nationwide, almost 90 percent of all elder abuse is committed by someone that the victim knows, according to Bragg.
“Education is the key to prevention,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville.
In 2016, Florida had an estimated 4.1 million people aged 65 and older, approximately 20 percent of the state’s population. It’s projected to increase to 5.9 million by 2030, and by then seniors will make up 25 percent of the state’s population and will account for most of the state’s growth, according to the Senate report.
Report a concern or suspicion to your local law enforcement office or any of the following agencies:
Help Now/Osceola coalition for elder abuse: 407-847-3286, 407-383-5364
Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence: 1-800-500-1119
Florida Abuse Hotline: 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873)
Department of Elder Affairs Helpline: 1-800-96- ELDER (1-800-963-5337)
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Local agencies work together to route out Elder Abuse in Osceola County