BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — A change to Tennessee law, effective Jan. 1, will make it a crime for vulnerable and elderly adults to be exposed to sexual conduct and pornography.

The change in the law will make it easier for Vulnerable Adult Protective Investigative Teams, or VAPITs, across the state to prosecute sexual exploitation cases, Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said. The teams coordinate investigations of vulnerable adult abuse, neglect and exploitation cases.

Vulnerable adults are defined in the law as anyone over the age of 18 who, because of a mental or physical disability, cannot manage their resources, perform daily tasks or protect themselves from abusive situations. People who are 70 years old and older are considered elderly adults.

A 2017 law provided for more abuse outreach and awareness, better trained officers to detect vulnerable adult abuse and more resources to help victims, which included requiring all Tennessee district attorneys to establish a multi-disciplinary VAPIT.

“The more you let people know what’s out there, the resources and what the law is, we hope that more people will report it because we have an ever-increasing population of vulnerable adults,” Staubus said. “Most of the cases are elder abuse.”

There has been a concerted effort over the past three to four years to improve laws against elder and vulnerable adult abuse, Staubus said.

“We’ve seen a large increase of prosecution and investigation of those cases because of the change in the law, but one of the most important changes I think was the creation of VAPIT,” he said.

Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney General Mike Filetti said the county’s VAPIT helps vulnerable and elderly adults, but also aids in prosecuting cases.

The team includes officials from Adult Protective Services, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Tennessee’s Commission on Aging and Disability’s Collaborative Response to Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse program as well as Sheriff’s Office and police department officers.

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2018, Sullivan County’s VAPIT reviewed 347 referrals, according to Assistant District Attorney Emily Hutchins.

Seven resulted in criminal charges. The data for 2019 hasn’t been compiled yet.

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