ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia state agencies have ramped up efforts to crack down on elder abuse, with law enforcement training and a tougher criminal code.
But an underlying anxiety exists among several officials who feel the issue will continue to plague at-risk Georgians until stricter protocols are put in place to track offenses.
Despite a new statewide focus on the issue, Georgia has no elder abuse registry, unlike Tennessee and New Hampshire, two leading states in addressing elder abuse.
As the number of elderly Georgians increases, stopping elder abuse has become one of Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan's top priorities.
"This is what I call an iceberg crime," Keenan said. "You only see a small part of the criminal activity and the rest remains out of sight and hidden."
The number of elderly people in Georgia is growing fast - in metro Atlanta, the number of people over 60 quadrupled between 1970 and 2015.
This presents a rising problem for law enforcement, as one in five Georgians are elderly or disabled. Ten percent of them are victims of physical or financial abuse, the Atlanta newspaper reported.
Elder abuse "has been going on in the dark for a number of years, and we're finally paying attention to it and starting to address the issue," said Kathy Floyd, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.
However, some state officials are concerned that this type of exploitation will continue until more is done to stop it.
"There is an institutional concern," said Wendell Willard, a state representative from Sandy Springs who introduced a bill in 2015 that tightened elder exploitation laws.
"Unfortunately, a lot of people don't have family institutions they can call on to help them out," Willard said.
Those calling for an elder abuse registry say it would work similarly to how child and sexual abuse registries track people, according to abuse experts who have been advocating for one.
Heather Strickland, the GBI's assistant special agent in charge of at-risk adult abuse, said a registry would help everyday Georgians make decisions about the care of their loved ones.
"Say your mom needs someone to come in and do some work on her house," she said. "It would be nice to have a database where someone could go in it and see if (a person) who knocked on her door, if he . had ever been convicted of financial exploitation or abuse or neglect of an older person."
Willard said lawmakers discussed the possibility of an elder abuse registry last legislative session, but it was too late in the year to come to fruition.
The Council on Aging has been strategizing about a registry for two years, Floyd said.
Strickland and Cobb County Senior Assistant District Attorney Jason Marbutt confirmed that Georgia lawmakers have been working on instituting a registry, and they expect to see a bill introduced in the next legislative session.