Missouri offers new online option for reporting adult abuse

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A new, online option might help the state of Missouri solve a big issue and protect the vulnerable. It's meant to boost a shocking statistic about Missouri's Adult Abuse Hotline: only 39% of the calls were answered earlier this year. The state is trying to right that wrong with an updated way to report abuse.

For every documented report on elder abuse, about 113,000 go unreported in Missouri, according to a 2016 report from the DHSS. That might be because the adult abuse hotline is often a dead-end. More than a dozen states, including Oklahoma and Texas, already have online reporting systems. A Springfield attorney said it's "long overdue" for Missouri to follow suit.

"Our elderly are precious," said Lori Rook.

Rook, an attorney with Ozarks Elder Law, considers herself on the "front lines" of combating adult abuse.

"Sometimes financial, sometimes neglect-type cases, even physical. Some of that can cross over into the criminal side of things. We deal with it on the civil side," Rook said.

According to the DHSS, victims of adult abuse are either over the age of 60, or have disabilities, and are over the age of 18.

Rook said she's seen the number of cases only increase in her seven years of practicing elder law. Her busiest season is right after the holidays.

"They saw mom and dad, they saw there were issues, or someone has been calling asking mom for money, and what do we do about that? We’re getting involved and seeing what we can do to help," she said.

Rook said, three or four times every month, her office encourages people to report adult abuse or neglect.

"They will call us back and say, 'I was on hold for 30 minutes and finally hung up because I had to go do X, Y or Z,'" she said. "It's the same thing over and over again."

Nicole Gatlin oversees all reports of adult abuse and neglect that come into the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. She said, after making some changes, the department is now answering 77% of the calls to hotline, up from 39% earlier this year.

"We're doing the best we can to make things as efficient as possible, but we needed another way to help free up some of the phone space so people can get into the hotline," Gatlin said.

The online report includes six questions and a form to fill out.

Gatlin said the new reporting option won't change how adult abuse cases are investigated.

Rook said there could be complications with the new system, however, she said she believes more people will get through, and at least be heard now that they can report abuse online.

“There's a possibility of it bogging down the system in another way, but I think we’re going to be able to keep tabs on it," she said. "I think everyone’s going to be really surprised at how the number of cases that are really out there.”

The DHSS will "closely monitor" the number of reports it receives online and investigations they spur before deciding to bring on more staff.

Both Gatlin and Rook said there's an increased awareness of adult abuse, and the online reporting system could give more people a voice to say something, when they see something.

"I think it's everyone's duty to protect those vulnerable people in our society," Rook said.

The DHSS said one sign or symptom does not necessarily indicate abuse, neglect or exploitation, but some indicators are:
- Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect, or mistreatment.
- Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness, and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
- Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
- Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
- Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible caregiver neglect.
- Behavior such as belittling, threats and other uses of power and control are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
- Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs of possible abuse.

The online portal is open to anyone, but the DHSS encourages mandated reporters, especially, to enter reports online to allow greater accessibility to the hotline for the public.

The Adult Abuse Hotline is operational from 7 a.m. until midnight, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If you suspect abuse, neglect or financial exploitation of the elderly or an adult with a disability call the Adult Abuse Hotline at (800) 392-0210.

Click HERE to report abuse online. The online reporting system is available 24/7; however, it is only monitored by intake staff during the hotline’s hours of operation.