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DA: Here's what it takes to investigate and prosecute an elder abuse case

The District Attorney General's Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigation Team examined 1,200 reports of elder abuse and neglect in 2022.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County District Attorney's Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigation Team (VAPIT) looked into 1,200 elder and vulnerable adult abuse and neglect reports in 2022. That's more than the 1,100 they reported examining in 2021. 

However, despite the high volume of cases. Few perpetrators face charges and even fewer face trial. DA Charme Allen said it's due to a number of factors that make these cases complicated.

A recent case elder abuse case ended in devastation. Brenda Crutchfield died at the hands of her nieces and nephews, who were also her caretakers, according to reports from Knox County Sheriff's Office. 

Police arrested Crystal Shinpaugh Dalton, Ira Shinpaugh, Teresa Shinpaugh, and Randy Shinpaugh on Sunday. Their charges include first-degree murder, aggravated neglect of an elderly or vulnerable adult, and tampering with evidence. KCSO reports point to an autopsy showing these four neglected her to the point of starvation at her home off Lakin Road in Knoxville.

Credit: WBIR

Crutchfield died in 2020, at the hands of her family members. However, they were not arrested until three years later. It took the autopsy, financial records, and several other witnesses and source material to collect enough evidence of foul play. DA Charme Allen says sometimes that's what it takes to catch these abusers.

"In regard to elder abuse, you're typically looking at four different areas. You're looking at financial exploitation neglect, sexual abuse, and physical abuse. And so we had to take each one of those pieces and look at those independently as well, too," Allen said.

The first step is getting a tip about the abuse. Things can get sticky with elder abuse cases because in 60% of cases, it's a family member doing the abusing.

"That's a challenge because the elderly don't really want to turn in family members," Allen said.

Sasha Hammett with the CAC's Office on Ageing is the Elder Abuse Program manager. She looks at cases every day and said the ones involving family members are the most complicated.

"They are some of the hardest cases because, on one hand, we can have one victim that's like, yes, absolutely. Let me do something about this. But, then you have the ones that say this is my family member, I don't want to get them in trouble," Hammett said.

If it's not verbally reported, there is still a way authorities can be flagged of the potential abuse.

"It's the financial institution that reports in the first place. And when we get into looking at the financial aspect of what is happening, then we often find neglect or abuse with those crimes. Unfortunately, sometimes that abuse does lead to death," Allen said.

In the case of Crutchfield, reports allege the financial trail pointed back to one of the family members, Crystal Shinpaugh Dalton. 

The presentment to the court said Dalton "unlawfully and knowingly financially exploited the victim, Brenda Sue Crutchfield, and elderly or vulnerable adult of her property, specifically money of the value of $60,000 or more."

Credit: KCSO

Hammett said the other forms of abuse often stem from the desire to access those funds. 

"Once you have the financial exploitation piece that's going to come along with other pieces, most often the physical abuse, the neglect, the emotional abuse in order to gain the control of those funds," Hammett said.

Hammett said in the five years she's been working at the CAC's Office on Aging, she's seen a progression of the intensity of these cases.

"The cases I feel like are getting more severe, and they are resulting in bigger consequences such as death or losses of, you know, huge amounts of money," she said.

However, even with the growing intensity, few of these cases make it to trial.

"We don't prosecute all 1200. It's difficult to be able to prosecute these cases," Allen said. "Oftentimes, we don't have the evidence or oftentimes, our victims are not in a position where they can cooperate with us. Additionally, if we have strong proof, our defendants will plead and we won't have to take these cases to trial."

That's why the DA's VAPIT team, alongside case managers at the CAC are dedicated to catching them early.

"Oftentimes, we lose elderly during the prosecution, unfortunately, they pass away on us. So we have to be very vigilant to make sure that we lock down their testimony early on," Allen said.

Hammett said the main way to prevent these cases from happening is to check in on the older people in your life. Avoid allowing them to become isolated.

"Isolation is the number one risk factor for abuse. If we can prevent isolation, I think the numbers would lower significantly," Hammett said.

Credit: WBIR

In Crutchfield's case, the Shinpaughs' collective bond is over $1.1 million with Ira's, Teresa's and Randy's bond set at $275,000. Crystal's bond is at $300,000, and she has a court date set for May 30 in Knox County Criminal Court.

KCSO's Detective Jim Shipley worked the case.


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