NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — When the state legislature added a couple words to Tennessee code last session, Adult Protective Services lost a key tool to keep at-risk Tennesseans safe.

In a bill concerning domestic violence, lawmakers changed the definition of “abuse or neglect” to be instances where a “caretaker” inflicts pain or deprives an adult of necessary services.

As a result, instances of self-neglect no longer fall under the purview of the Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Adult Protective Services.

“I’ve seen people in horrible hoarding situations, you know, we see some of the shows on TV that involve hoarding, and you are literally talking about areas that could catch fire at any time,” said Mary Griffin, Davidson County Assistant District Attorney.

Griffin specializes in prosecuting cases involving elderly and vulnerable adults and has seen people living in complete disarray.

“You can’t find a path through to find the person. They may or may not have deceased animals; there may no longer be water, electricity, you know, basic services,” Griffin explained. “The person may or may not have had a bath for four months.”

Before May 2023, Adult Protective Services (APS) was able to investigate self-neglect cases like hoarding, malnutrition, living in filthy conditions, or not getting needed medical care.

“What’s happening right now is that the police are also doing a much larger amount of welfare checks that takes time away from the investigation of cases, because most of those welfare checks were situations where Adult Protective Services last year was able to go and check up on the person and make sure they had services,” Griffin said.

According to 2022 APS data, there were 8,098 self-neglect allegations, which was the second highest category of allegations behind neglect.

(Source: Adult Protective Services)

Since the change in law was implemented, FiftyForward Center Director Ashley Hunter said they have seen an increase in self-neglect calls.

“The biggest risk factor that I see for those I serve is isolation,” Hunter said. “So, I think it’s so important as a community that we are involved, you know, with our neighbors or church members to really, you know, provide support to an older adult.”

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), who sponsored the legislation that changed the definition of “abuse or neglect”, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Tennessee Department of Human Services said, “We have implemented the new law and look forward to working with the General Assembly in protecting vulnerable adults in the next legislative session.”

To report abuse or negligence to APS call 1-888-APS-TENN (1-888-277-8366) or click here.