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July 18, 2022

Examining “Shirley’s Law” and Adult Abuse Registries

Erica C. R. Costello, JD

The PDF in which this article appears can be found here.

In March of 2022, Alabama passed House Bill 105 to create the state’s first adult abuse registry.  Known as “Shirley’s Law,” the statute is named after Shirley Johnson Smith, an older adult who was financially exploited by her caregiver (Davis, 2022).  The statute requires the registry to include the names of anyone criminally convicted of elder abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation, anyone who has an elder protection order or a protection order involving an older adult or adult in need of services against them, and anyone found to have committed an act of “abuse, elder abuse, emotional abuse, exploitation, financial exploitation, intimidation, neglect, sexual abuse, or undue influence” against an older adult or adult in need of protectives services by Alabama’s Department of Human Resources. See, Ala. Code §38-9G-2 (2022).  The statute took effect on July 1 and the registry is scheduled to start by January 1, 2023.

Since the passage of “Shirley’s Law,” Alabama has joined a growing number of states that have created adult abuse registries throughout the country.  In 2018, the National Adult Protective Services Association (NAPSA) published a report, identifying 26 states with adult abuse registries.  For purposes of the report, adult abuse registries were defined as “a system for maintaining the identity of individuals who are found, only as a result of an APS investigation, to have abused, neglected or exploited seniors or adults (18 and older) with disabilities living in the community or in a facility” (National Adult Protective Services Association, 2018).  Though the registries largely varied across the states, it was believed that they could help prevent future access to vulnerable adults and future perpetration of adult abuse cases.  However, the NAPSA report recommended further funding and research to measure the overall “efficacy and efficiency” of these registries.

One area of noted difference involves who has access to the information on the registries. The NAPSA report found that only one-third of participating states had a public registry (National Adult Protective Services, 2018).  Yet, in most states, registry information is not available to the public by any means and access is only provided to certain types of employers, service providers, or state disability agencies.  Under Alabama’s new statute, all records and reports on the registry are confidential and can only be disclosed in limited situations, which includes disclosure to service providers for purposes of employment.  However, notably absent from the statute is language allowing family members or friends of vulnerable adults to have access to records and reports on the registry.  As a result, individuals on the registry may be hired by family members or friends who have no prior knowledge of the past convictions.

Another area of concern is that most states with registries only require certain employers to check the registry (i.e., state disability agencies or service providers for adults with disabilities or older adults). However, not all states with registries bar employers from hiring individuals listed on the registry.  In Alabama, all “service providers,” including hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living communities, hospice programs, home health agencies, and group homes or other residential facilities, are required to check the registry for current and prospective employees.  See, Ala. Code §38-9G-1 (2022).  But the statute does not explicitly bar service providers from hiring individuals on the registry. 

On the other hand, adult abuse registries may also result in service providers having a difficult time finding qualified and available individuals to hire as caregivers.  According to a recent report released by the Global Coalition on Aging, there will be a national caregiver shortage of 155,000 workers by 2030 and a shortage of 355,000 workers by 2040 (Kennedy, 2022).  While Alabama’s statute does not specifically bar employers from hiring individuals on the registry, several other states expressly prohibit the hiring individuals listed on their registries (National Adult Protective Services Association, 2018).  As a result, the registries may lead to a further shortage of available caregivers for older adults and adults with disabilities in these states.

Last year, over 11,000 reports of physical abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation were made to Alabama’s Department of Human Resources (Davis, 2022).  Though the state is the latest to adopt an adult abuse registry, it remains unclear whether its registry will lead to an overall reduction in the number of adult abuse cases.  The current statute only allows for records and reports on the registry to be disclosed in limited situations and does not explicitly bar service providers from hiring individuals on the registry.  It is also unknown at this time how the registry will affect the number of available caregivers for older adults and adults with disabilities.  As suggested in the NAPSA report, further funding and research will likely be needed to determine if Alabama’s registry, and other similar adult abuse registries, are helpful tools in the prevention of adult abuse.     

Works Cited

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