State Sen. Cam Ward stirs support for elderly abuse legislation in Alabaster

As the Alabama Legislature approaches its home stretch, state Sen. Cam Ward of Shelby County and others at a press conference this morning stirred support of a bill he sponsored that protects seniors from criminal abuse.

"We're only one vote away from this bill getting final passage," Ward said at the Alabaster Senior Citizens Center, urging those in attendance to call their legislators to approve the bill within the session's remaining eight days.

Ward has sponsored Senate Bill 29 that expands the opportunity for prosecution as well as the penalties associated with cases of neglect, mistreatment and financial abuse of elderly. A virtually identical bill in the House sponsored by Rep. Paul DeMarco of Homewood is also awaiting passage.

"One of the things we oftentimes don't think about until it happens to us is the terrible tragedy of elder abuse," Ward said. "It's unfortunate that every day in this state there are instances of abuse."

Both lawmakers held a press conference in December at the Heardmont Senior Center in north Shelby County to raise support of their efforts.

Almyra VanHorn of Alabaster, who volunteers at the Alabaster senior center, hopes the legislation will pass. "It's very important that these bills are passed so that we have a voice in what happens in Montgomery," VanHorn, 88, said.

The press conference allowed Ward and others to voice their support and talk about the need for the legislation in Alabama.

John Kachelman, an assistant attorney general for Alabama, highlighted a case he prosecuted as a district attorney in Montgomery County involving a woman who lost more than $2.5 million from a caretaker.

Between 2006 and 2010, "Joe Giddens took and exploited her for over $2.5 million of her life savings, her checking, her savings ... for his own personal gain," Kachelman said, noting that under the old state law he received the maximum sentence of 10 years.

"It's not enough time -- and that's exactly correct," he said. The law in place doesn't differentiate losses of $150 and $2.5 million, "and we know that is not the same thing."

He commended Ward for working on the new legislation to address abuse and exploitation crimes involving elderly victims.

"We've got to have that so we can use it to prosecute it and go forward," he said. "What we see now in this current statute is it helps bring out and specify you cannot use those kinds of legal documents" such as power of attorney to take money from the elderly.

Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens said the law would help protect seniors such as his 83-year-old mother from scammers trying to take her money on the telephone. "Until now we really haven't had a bill to direct itself to some of those issues," he said.

Connie Walden, the AARP's acting president in Alabama, said the cases of elderly abuse are more common than people may think.

"We probably have anywhere from 35,000 to 75,000 cases of elder abuse just in the state of Alabama every year, but of those cases only about 6,000 get reported. So there's not much we can do to prosecute or stop these cases if people are not talking about it or telling people in charge about what's happening," Walden said.

She cited the $2.5 million case of Virginia Freck, who turns 99 soon, as an example of the types of elderly abuse that occurs in Alabama. "These abuse cases, unfortunately a lot of them are at home, a lot of them are through caregivers at home and unfortunately a lot of them occur at nursing homes. It's a scary thought," she said.

After applause for the legislation that increases prosecution and penalties for the elderly abuse crimes, Walden urged people to call the Alabama Senate at (334) 242-7800 and the Alabama House of Representatives at (334) 242-7600 to support the legislation.

"It's about time, don't you think? And we can't let the time run out because we only have about eight legislative days left in this session. We feel certain this bill is going to be passed but we need your help. We need you to make phone calls," she said.

 

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