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At long last, laws protect the elderly

There ought to be a law that sends people to jail if they try to take advantage of an elderly or disabled person. Actually, jail would be too nice for someone who cozies up to his ailing grandmother just to get her money. Hell sounds more appropriate.

And since we are creating laws, how about one that treats senior citizens with a bit more understanding when they have been the victims of crimes?

Specifically, why not loosen the hearsay law so that their descriptions of abuse, neglect or exploitation can still be used in court even if they are unable to confront their abuser directly?

Poof! Done.

As of Saturday, several new state laws that prosecutor Jim McCune described as "significant arrows in the quiver of instruments of war against those who prey on our citizens" took effect.

McCune, of the State Attorney's Public Interest Unit, chases scoundrels throughout the Fifth Circuit, which includes Citrus, Hernando, Marion, Sumter and Lake counties.

Nearly two years ago, the Florida Supreme Court crippled those efforts by dumping the state's laws against exploitation and neglect of the elderly and disabled, saying they were too vague.

"We actually had four cases pending that we had to throw out," McCune said. "During the year and a half, we had six other cases we were not able to prosecute because we didn't have a law to apply to the fact situations."

A group of Broward County prosecutors took the lead in rewriting the statutes. While they brainstormed ideas, they thought of other ways to help the elderly and piggybacked those onto the proposed legislation.

The good guys finally won: the changes passed unanimously.

It's amazing what an impact some simple, but overdue, tinkering with the law can have. Take the changes in the hearsay statute, for example.

"There have been times when we had a case, we knew something was wrong, but we couldn't pursue it because of problems with the witness being able to testify in court," McCune said. "Some can't get out of bed, or they have deteriorating memory. Sometimes they truly fear retribution."

The new law, of course, doesn't allow people to make accusations against someone without having to back them up. There are specific definitions of elderly person and disabled adult. Plus, a judge must decide if the hearsay statement is reliable.

But even so, McCune was thrilled about the new law. "This change is incredibly significant in our ability to prosecute any kind of case of abuse or neglect."

And that's important, he said, because those crimes are increasing.

Some of that, he says, could be attributed to more elderly people reporting crimes. But, traditionally, that hasn't been the case.

"Our seniors are extremely reticent to report crimes against themselves. They're embarrassed or ashamed. They blame themselves for not being sharper or taking greater care.

"Plus, a lot of seniors are consumed with fear. It's twofold: the actual fear of physical harm _ they're not as robust as they once were. And since the sheriff can't be outside their door 24 hours a day, they fear that if they report so and so, he'll come back and get them. So they take the path of least resistance and pay the guy.

"But the fear we see most often is of losing independence, that the family member who watches out for them will decide that they can't take care of themselves anymore. They fear the day that person tells them, "Don't you think it's time for a rest home?'

"Our seniors are ripe for the picking," he continued. "They have money to take and come from a trusting kind of background. We've seen people taken by scams two or three times by the same person. There are a bunch of vultures working every kind of scam.

"Some of the most tragic cases are intrafamily. A drug-addicted grandson ingratiates himself with his grandmother with a month's show of attention, then he bleeds her bank account dry. That's the most repulsive aspect, someone who is so trusted being so evil."

The good news is that, finally, laws have been passed to protect the innocent, not the criminal. What a concept!

If you feel you've been a victim of a crime or want more information on how to protect yourself, contact any law enforcement agency or call the state attorney's office at (904) 620-3752.