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Bills would toughen elderly abuse laws

Cases of elder abuse are sometimes extreme and require extreme action.

Like the Fort Lauderdale police detective who stopped a cremation so a medical examiner could perform an autopsy.

Detective Sandra McCullough said Monday she had to take the action because too often elder abuse isn't treated as seriously as it should be.

"It's not because they are old" that they are getting bed sores and other physical problems, said McCullough during a news conference Monday to promote a tougher adult protection bill. "It's because they are being abused and neglected."

Two bills making their way through the Legislature would increase the criminal and civil penalties for people who abuse or neglect the elderly.

The bills also would make it easier to prosecute suspects, by expanding the definition of abuse and neglect and more clearly stating what role law enforcement agencies play in the investigations.

More than 17,000 cases involving people older than 60 were reported to the Adult Abuse hot line in 1992-93, including 4,800 in institutions. Officials suspect thousands of cases go unreported, often by professionals or family members who attribute the injuries to old age or simply ignore the signs.

"Adult abuse is a silent killer because so often it goes unseen or unnoticed or undetected," Gov. Lawton Chiles said at the conference.

The bills have faced little opposition so far in House and Senate committees.

But another part of Chiles' plan _ to move adult protective services out of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and into the Department of Elder Affairs _ has opponents among leading Republican senators.

E. Bentley Lipscomb, elder affairs secretary, said people have died and officials couldn't make a case because the adult abuse law is weak.

"We need to modify our laws to allow prosecution of these perpetrators," Lipscomb said. "Just like in juvenile justice where you need swift, deterrent action, in adult abuse you need swift, deterrent action."

The law now does not allow prosecution unless there are scars, bruises and other physical signs of abuse _ even with eyewitnesses or other evidence. The current abuse law is vague about neglect, often allowing people to get away with hurting the elderly by withholding care.

"We have people dying of just bed sores," Detective McCullough said. "We need to feed these people. Most of them are starving to death."

Where to call

To report suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation of an older person, call the Florida Abuse hot line at (800) 96-ABUSE.