Prosecution of caregivers of at-risk adults is rare in Georgia

When Allison Mauldin pressed to prosecute a personal care home owner for murder, there wasn’t much enthusiasm.

 

But she wouldn’t let it go. “This was the worst case I have ever seen,” said Mauldin, an assistant district attorney with the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.

The victim was Joseph Ray, 75, who had lived at the Jackson Personal Care Home for years without any problem, but after owner Vernon Jackson’s wife died, the home rapidly went downhill, Mauldin said.

Ray, who had the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, had been active in adult day care services, Mauldin said. But after he was injured, Jackson kept Ray away from everyone. “They kept this man like a prisoner,” she said.

Two months before he died in December 2010, Ray’s limbs could not be moved out of a fetal position. An infection from bedsores had seeped into his bones.

Paulette Pippen, the victim’s main caregiver, was convicted on Oct. 11, 2012, of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In October, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed her conviction. Jackson pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in June 2012 and was sentenced to seven years in prison followed by three years on probation under the First Offenders Act.

Prosecution of caregivers of at-risk adults is rare in Georgia, and it’s not because of a decline in the abuse, neglect and exploitation of elderly and disabled adults. Between 2008 and 2012, reports of such crimes climbed 65 percent in the state.

But law enforcement and prosecutors are starting to seriously dig into the crimes. Chief Louis Dekmar of the LaGrange Police Department was on the committee that presented a proposal to the state’s police chiefs association to increase awareness and training in how to successfully investigate elder abuse and neglect. He hopes that the association will be ready to go forward this year.

It’s not an easy crime to investigate, Dekmar said. Crimes against the elderly are as difficult as crimes against children in that the perpetrator is often the victim’s caregiver.

“They are fearful if they share information they’ll be on the street or if nothing is done (by law enforcement) then the abuse will increase. There is also the fear of the unknown,” Dekmar said.

Officers need training to spot the red flags such as injuries in various stages of healing or malnutrition. They shouldn’t automatically believe a caregiver who blames an elderly person for any injury or attribute complaints to just confusion, Dekmar said. As with child abuse, it’s important to have a multidisciplinary investigation. A medical condition that indicates neglect could be explained as an expected outcome by a doctor, he said.

But finding someone covered in bedsores and lying on a urine-stained mattress isn’t a close call, he said. “Those are not tough calls. You see this and it just breaks your heart.”

In the past year, Rich­mond County sheriff’s officers and coroner officers have taken specialized training to spot the signs of abuse and neglect of at risk adults. And newly appointed District Attorney Natalie Paine is hopeful she can use victim services funds to finance a task force dedicated to at-risk victims. There is a huge need for specialized training and enforcement, she said.

The state’s Adult Protective Services staff is tasked with protecting elderly residents, but the staff is extremely limited, said Maj. Steven Strickland of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office can respond quicker, he said.

Personal care homes pose particular challenges. There is a huge difference between many and most pay caregivers small salaries for a very difficult job, Strickland noted.

Every year it seems as though someone goes missing from one of the homes. It could happen with the best of care, but when there are repeated elopements, often dementia patients who wander away, it’s an indication of neglect, Strickland said.

He encourages people to call the sheriff if they become suspicious an at-risk adult is being harmed. “It’s not wasting resources for an officer to check.”

Like the sheriff’s office, the coroner has started working with code inspection, the health department and the fire department as it pertains to personal care homes, Coroner Mark Bowen said.

“A lot of the places are great, but others are rough, to say the least,” Bowen said.

One policy Bowen has changed is requiring his officers to see the body of anyone who died in a personal care home.

If there is an indication of abuse or neglect, it needs to be documented, not only for that person for but for the potential safety of the other people who live in the same home, Bowen said.

Phyllis Sadler is an ombudsman representative whose region is governed by the Athens Community Council on Aging. Its goal is to make quarterly visits to each facility, or more frequently if there are complaints or problems, Sadler said. The staff’s job is to be advocates for residents, she said.

At each visit, they seek to talk with 10 percent of the residents, Sadler said. If they hear complaints, they have to have the patients’ permission to help, but even if told no, they are going to talk with other residents and family, Sadler said.

If given permission, they will talk with staff who are expected to investigate and report their findings with a plan to address the problem, Sadler said. When necessary, they can refer cases to the Department of Community Health, Adult Protective Services or Medicare/Medicaid fraud investigators.

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