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How Texas cops are combating elder abuse

Funded by a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, the new Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center brings together a multi-disciplinary team


This article is taken from the June 2017 issue of eTechBeat, published by the Justice Technology Information Center, a component of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System, a program of the National Institute of Justice, (800) 248-2742.

By Becky Lewis
TechBeat Magazine

According to the National Institute on Aging, most infants born in the United States in 1900 did not live past the age of 50, and life expectancy at birth now exceeds 83 years. Although often referred to as the “Golden Years,” for many individuals over age 65, they’ve become the “Vulnerable Years,” as diminished physical and mental capacity make them more susceptible to abuse, both financial and physical.

In Houston and Harris County, Texas, steps are being taken to lessen that vulnerability.

Because of the difficulties involved in investigating cases of elder abuse, it takes all of these varying players to create a good outcome. (Photo/Tech Beat Magazine)
Because of the difficulties involved in investigating cases of elder abuse, it takes all of these varying players to create a good outcome. (Photo/Tech Beat Magazine)

Funded by a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, the new Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center brings together a multi-disciplinary team that includes the Houston Police Department, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Harris County Protective Services, the district attorney’s office, the Area Agency on Aging, Harris County Health Services, the University of Texas Health Services, and others.

Realizing that the senior population lacked cohesive services and that agencies often worked parallel investigations on the same cases with no coordination, the stakeholders came together to assemble a grant proposal. Using child-focused centers and a similar seniors’ program in California as a model, the Senior Justice Assessment Center creates defined roles and establishes processes and procedures that include determining if a crime has been committed, assessing the client’s mental capacity and ensuring physical safety. The various stakeholders work together to create and implement plans tailored to each client’s needs.

“One thing I think is great about this program is we have the state, the county and the city all acting as partners,” says Barbara Lopez, program manager for the center. “We all work in different fashions to create a good outcome.”

Because of the difficulties involved in investigating cases of elder abuse, it takes all of these varying players to create that good outcome, according to Capt. Bill Staney of the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Division: “Often, they’re underreported, and even when they are reported, many of the victims no longer have the full mental capacity to understand what’s happening to them. It really takes a multi-disciplinary approach that includes looking at finances and documenting medical findings in order to make a case.”

An officer from the Mental Health Division serves as a coordinator within the HPD, working with other divisions such as the Special Victims Unit and the Burglary and Theft Division. In addition to working to educate investigators about the program and issues involved in elder abuse, Staney’s division will also help set up forensic interviews of center clients, as needed.

According to Lopez, the initial client group mainly reported financial crimes, as well as some physical assaults.

“With some cases, we will need to get a capacity assessment, and other clients have already been deemed incapacitated,” Lopez says. “The idea is for the center to bring everyone together: law enforcement, prosecution, the guardian if there is one, a psychiatrist if needed, possibly a nurse for a physical or forensic exam, and any other agency that might provide needed social services. We’ll talk about what we need to do and establish a timeframe for actions.”

“We hope to create a safe environment where we can interview victims in conjunction with individuals who have the proper medical training and know how to communicate with this population,” Staney says. “This will help us get the information we need to conduct a successful investigation without upsetting the clients.”

For more information on the Houston Police Department’s participation in the Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center, contact Capt. Bill Staney at (832) 394-4210 or William.staney@houstonpolice.org.

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