Dale El Smith, 74, was convicted in March 2015 of felony murder and two counts of cruelty to a person age 65 or older. She was sentenced to life. (Screen capture from WSB-TV video)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Elder Abuse: Prosecutions rise under new state law

Donald Pelham no longer trusts professional caregivers.

“I don’t much care for ‘em,” he said, three and a half years after his brother Arthur’s frozen body was found face-down outside the home of a woman who was supposed to be caring for him.

“She killed my brother.”

Arthur Pelham, a disabled Vietnam veteran, was living in Dale El Smith’s Clayton County home on Jan. 6, 2014, along with two other disabled residents. Smith locked the 66-year-old Jonesboro man outside in freezing temperatures for 10 hours that day, ignoring him while she watched TV.

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More than a year later, Smith was found guilty of felony murder and another crime new to the criminal code – two counts of cruelty to an elderly person. Following an appeal to the Supreme Court, Smith’s conviction was upheld on June 5 and she now faces life in prison.

The Veterans Administration had arranged to rent a room for Arthur Pelham at the home of Dale El Smith in Clayton County. (Screen capture from WSB-TV video)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State agencies have ramped up efforts to crack down on elder abuse in recent years, by instituting law enforcement training and making the criminal code tougher – moves that many said contributed to Smith’s murder conviction. 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.

‘An iceberg crime’

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 told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “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 alone, the number of people over 60 quadrupled between 1970 and 2015, according to an AJC article last year.

This presents a rising problem for law enforcement – according to the GBI, one in five Georgians are elderly or disabled, and 10 percent of them are victims of physical or financial abuse.

Pelham, for example, who suffered from schizophrenia, was in a position to be easily manipulated and neglected, Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Lawson said. Meanwhile, his caregiver was paid almost $2,000 a month by the government.

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.

Some Georgia officials worry this type of exploitation will continue until more is done.

“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.” 

Charges filed for abuse, neglect and exploitation of at-risk adults in Georgia

Source: The Georgia Bureau of Investigations. Graphic by Stephanie Lamm/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

‘He’d been arrested’

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.

An elder abuse registry would work similarly to how child and sexual abuse registries work, 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.”

It’s possible a registry could have saved the life of 98-year-old Edna Warren, who was allegedly abused by her caretaker in Newnan in May and later died at the hospital, Keenan said.

“The perpetrator that we arrested … had been arrested the previous year for abusing an elderly person in another home,” he said. “He’d been arrested and had left that job and had been hired in another facility.”

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 legislators have been working on instituting a registry, and they expect to see a bill introduced in the next legislative session.

Donald Pelham said he supported the concept of an elder abuse and exploitation registry, though he’s unsure of whether that could’ve prevented his brother Arthur’s death.

“We thought that she was a good person taking care of my brother,” he said. “We just didn’t know about her.”

Lawson, the Clayton County prosecutor, said she did not know whether Smith had any criminal history, or had any complaints lodged against her before Pelham lived with her.

‘Success stories’

Recent efforts to prosecute elder abuse have reaped positive results, the GBI said. In 2013, Georgia legislators shifted the elder abuse laws into the criminal code, which police officers are more familiar with.

Two years ago, the GBI hired eight new agents to focus on elder abuse, Keenan said, and they work with a task force that travels around the state to educate officers on how to recognize elder abuse and exploitation.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan wrote a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal finding no need for further investigation of allegations raised by a report on corruption in DeKalb County. Keenan is pictured here testifying on Nov. 10, 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

The GBI has seen results: Over a six-year period, the number of charges per year issued against Georgians for crimes against elderly people more than quintupled – 366 charges were issued in 2010, while 2016 saw 2,082 charges, according to data provided by the GBI. The figures show a gradual year-by-year increase in the number of elder abuse charges distributed by law enforcement.

“The more training we do, the more cases that are exposed. And we’ve had some great success stories of investigators having gone to the training and then go back and detect what’s going on in one of these cases,” Keenan said. “They’ve rescued elderly people who would have died.”

Keenan said he and other state officials have been asked to speak nationally and internationally to other police agencies about what Georgia is doing to fight elder abuse.

The officers who arrested Smith in 2014 were aware of the changes in the law, which Lawson said make elder abuse stricter and easier to prove.

“I have seen [elder abuse] happening more and more in the last 5 years,” she said. “… This is something that needs to be monitored – I’m grateful that we have the laws.”

Marbutt, also the chairman of the North Georgia/Cobb Elder Abuse Task Force, said elder abuse issues now are similar to how children’s abuse cases were in the 1980s.

“They existed, but it wasn’t part of the common vernacular. We didn’t talk about it,” he said. “Law enforcement is recognizing that as an issue; we want to make sure we are searching for these victims in our communities – that they’re not taken advantage of.”

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