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Senate HRS panel approves proposal to curb elderly abuse

Florida is ready to get tougher on people who abuse the elderly, with stiffer criminal penalties, fines for false reports and expanded definitions of what constitutes abuse.

"This is going to make it a lot harder to abuse the elderly and get away with it," Rob Lombardo, a top official in the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, said Wednesday after the Senate HRS Committee approved the plan. The House is considering similar legislation.

Abuse and neglect of older people is a growing national and state problem. But officials have said it is often hard to prosecute offenders because the current law lacks enough penalties and too narrowly defines abuse, neglect and exploitation.

But changes proposed this year make it more obvious when abuse or neglect has occurred, Lombardo and others say.

For example, the proposal expands abuse to include "an action . . . which could reasonably be expected to result in physical or psychological injury."

This should allow prosecution in cases where the physical signs of abuse or neglect might not be present _ things like scars or bruises _ but where other eyewitness accounts or evidence suggests an older person was abused.

Also, if a spouse, child or other caregiver fails to, for example, feed a frail old person, he or she can be prosecuted for a felony.

"In the past, we could try to go after these people under other criminal statutes, like battery, but often judges would see the case had come from an HRS abuse and neglect investigation and apply that law," which had lower penalties, said E. Bentley Lipscomb, the secretary of the state Department of Elder Affairs.

Elder Affairs would take over such cases, under other legislative proposals to consolidate aging services in the department.