Dr. Carmel Dyer takes part in the Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center opening.
Dr. Carmel Dyer takes part in the Harris County Senior Justice Assessment Center opening.

Geriatric medicine specialists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) are providing the critical forensic assessments for a new collaborative center focusing on physical and financial elder abuse.

Experts from the UTHealth Consortium on Aging have joined forces with Harris County Protective Services (HCPS) and community partners to form the state’s first Senior Justice Assessment Center (SJAC). Modeled on the Harris County Children’s Assessment Center, the SJAC is part of an initiative that began with the Texas Elder Abuse and Mistreatment Institute (TEAM), a partnership between UTHealth, Harris Health System and the Texas Division of Adult Protective Services (APS).

TEAM, which for 17 years has paired geriatricians with APS case workers to complete medical and capacity assessments in cases of elder abuse, documented a deficit in related prosecutions and convictions. As a result, two years ago, the UTHealth Consortium on Aging’s strategic plan included the SJAC.

“We saw a need to help older victims of crime. This center brings evaluation and resources directly to citizens, increases efficiency since all disciplines will work from the same record, and protects through the goal of increased prosecutions. This center will help make Houston and Harris County safer for older adults,” said Carmel Dyer, M.D., professor of geriatric and palliative medicine and executive director of the UTHealth Consortium on Aging

With the involvement of HCPS, TEAM began the process of creating a one-stop facility with experts in geriatric medicine, protective services, civil and criminal prosecution and law enforcement working together. Jason Burnett, Ph.D., assistant professor of geriatric and palliative medicine  and co-director of TEAM, was instrumental in designing the project to create an integrated and coordinated program addressing the complex needs of older victims of abuse.

Along with TEAM, the core group includes participants from APS, the District Attorney’s Office, the City of Houston Police Department, the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Aging and Disability Services and the Area Agency on Aging.

Last year alone, there were over 15,000 APS in-home investigations. The new multi-collaborative center aims to reduce costs of duplicative services and increase prosecution.

“This is an important and overdue effort in our community to better address the growing need for specialized handling of elder abuse case in order to combat abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation amongst our aging population,” Dyer said. “We are pleased to have partnered with Harris Health to promote a space for the site.” The new center is at 2525 Murworth Dr. in a Harris County Protective Services building.

Funding for the program was awarded to Harris County Protective Services from Victims of Crime Acts (VOCA). VOCA was established by the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 and serves as a major funding source for victim services throughout the country. The fund includes money from criminal fines, forfeited bail bonds, penalty fees, and special assessments collected by U.S. Attorney’s Offices, U.S. Courts, and the Bureau of Prisons.

The UTHealth Consortium on Aging was created in 2010 to leverage the strengths of UTHealth faculty expertise across the university’s six schools along with community collaborators to better serve Houston’s geriatric population. Awareness and prevention of elder abuse is one of the key areas of excellence for members of the Consortium on Aging.