Two incidents spotlight abuse of senior citizens

December 10, 1997

Two incidents spotlight abuse of senior citizens


Staff Writer

Two alleged assaults last month that resulted in charges against the victims' adult children have sparked concerns about the abuse and neglect of elderly residents in Washington County.

In the first incident, Robert Harvey Dunnavant, 31, of 25 Broadway, was charged with second-degree assault and the false imprisonment of Helen Dunnavant and was still jailed.

In the second, Gladys Irene Dawson, 54, of 479 Mitchell Ave., was accused of assaulting her father, Thomas Lee Turner. When police arrived, they discovered the 79-year-old man covered in blood and soup.


Dawson, who was charged with attempted first-degree murder, first- and second-degree assault and reckless endangerment, was released from jail after her bond was set at $10,000. Bond had been denied for several days after her arrest.

The incidents, less than a week apart, have drawn attention from government officials and police authorities. Although such incidents are rare, officials said a number of demographic trends have increased the number of elderly people who are abused by their adult children.

"It seemed odd they had two in the same time frame," said Officer Randy Rourke, the Hagerstown Police Department's crime prevention officer.

Rourke said recent changes in the law have given police officers more leeway when investigating cases of possible abuse. Like other domestic violence cases, officers can now make arrests on the spot when they view evidence of violence, he said.

Before, victims usually had to file complaints themselves, he said.

Rourke said another factor is that more detailed statistics are kept. At one time, officials did not keep track of who was victimized, he said.

"Before, it would be classified as an assault," he said.

While police take action in only the most extreme cases, the state Department of Social Services keeps statistics showing elder abuse.

In fiscal year 1997, the department recorded 13 such abuse cases in Washington County, according to statistics provided by the department. That is one fewer than the number reported in 1995 and 1996.

The number of neglect cases increased from 30 to 41 between 1996 and 1997, according to the statistics.

While the numbers have remained fairly steady in recent years - and cases are far less frequent than abuse of children - officials said they have seen a long-term trend.

"We're increasing gradually over the years," said John Kenney, the department's adult services program manager.

Kenney said cases of abuse have increased as people live longer. Older adults become vulnerable when their adult children are ill-equipped to deal with their parents' dependence.

"Usually, they (senior citizens) need some type of care in their home," Kenney said. "Usually, the adult child has been overwhelmed by that."

Hagerstown resident Carolyn Wilhelm, 50, who cares for eight seniors at her home on Kuhn Avenue, said she suspects some of her clients may have been abused by family members. Six of the eight suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and the stress of the illness can lead to frustration, she said.

"I think it has come close. I know there has been verbal abuse," she said.

Kenney said about 100 seniors live in about 50 care homes in Washington County. Most are there as a result of self-neglect, but he said about 9 percent have been abused. Unlike with abused children, however, Kenney said adults must cooperate before they can be placed in a home.

Many do not. Some even deny they have been victims, Kenney said.

The Herald-Mail Articles