Sen. Cam Ward pushes for passage of elder abuse legislation.

Sen. Cam Ward pushes for passage of elder abuse legislation.

ALABASTER, Ala. – Prosecutors and advocates for senior citizens joined state Sen. Cam Ward today to push for final passage of a new law to combat elder abuse.

Both houses of the Legislature have passed a bill to increase penalties for elder abuse and make it easier to prosecute these cases. But because of a slight wording difference in the House and Senate legislation, another vote is necessary for either bill to make it to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature.

Ward, who sponsored the Senate bill, said the measure has broad-based, bipartisan support and he is confident it will become law. “Protecting senior citizens is a top priority for me, and I know it is for my colleagues,” Ward said. “I’m going to keep pushing for us to do the right thing.”

But advocates who joined Ward at the Alabaster Senior Center say they are concerned the new elder abuse law could still get swept aside as the legislative session enters its hectic final weeks.

“In past sessions, we’ve all seen good legislation die simply because time ran out,” said Connie Walden of Killen, who is the interim state president of AARP Alabama. “We can’t afford to let this one fall through the cracks.”

AARP Alabama released a video explaining the need for the new law and urging lawmakers to act on the bill. The video features the case of Virginia Freck, a Montgomery woman swindled out of $2.5 million by a family friend who’d been given power of attorney to look after her affairs. Though the case resulted in prosecution, the perpetrator, Joe Giddens, initially received no jail time for the crime.

Assistant Attorney General John Kachelman, who prosecuted the case as a deputy district attorney in Montgomery County, said the experience demonstrated the need for better elder abuse laws.

“Ms. Virginia’s case is an incredible example of how a sweet, hard-working woman can be brought to financial ruin because of her misplaced trust in someone she thought would look after her interests and needs,” Kachelman said. “This new law would have allowed a much easier road to prosecution and would have allowed us to hold the defendant to a higher penalty because of the extreme financial hardship he caused her.”

In addition to increasing the penalties, the proposed new law would better define financial exploitation, and it would give prosecutors additional tools in cases of physical abuse or neglect.

Although only a fraction are reported, it’s been estimated that as many as 75,000 cases of elder abuse occur every year in Alabama.

Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens said the proposed law would equip prosecutors to pursue more elder abuse cases.

“Nobody wants to see someone get away with hurting older people or taking advantage of them,” Owens said. “While we hope it never happens, when people are victimized, we want to make sure justice is done.”

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