LAWRENCEVILLE -- As charges mount against a Snellville woman accused of bilking and abusing her mentally handicapped clientele, authorities are using the case and another like as fodder for meetings in a possible push to widen the scope of Georgia's human-trafficking laws, police said Tuesday.
Gwinnett police investigators building a case against Seema Vijay, 37, who runs a network of Gwinnett care homes, are meeting this week with officials from the GBI, Georgia's Adult Protective Services and DeKalb County law enforcement to discuss how human-trafficking laws might be amended to include disabled adults and the elderly, in addition to women and children, whom the laws are meant to protect.
The objective would be to create stiffer penalties than fines for those who victimize society's aged and disabled.
"As law enforcement, we see a problem and there's no law to address it," said Gwinnett police Detective Danny Appleby, who's investigating financial aspects of Vijay's case. "Some people are just desperate to place these adults, so they place them wherever there is bed space."
Investigators say Vijay's case and a similar crackdown in Barrow County with Gwinnett ties last year stand out as the only instances of "operations" built to scam disabled adults of Social Security payments and other income.
In November, three Barrow County residents were charged with exploiting mentally ill men and women discharged from Georgia health care facilities after one patient's father came forward, claiming he'd found his stepson and three others abandoned without medication at a vacant house in Winder. The victims suffered from illness such as severe dementia and paranoid schizophrenia.
The proprietor, Marlo Yarbrough, allegedly duped the victims' families into thinking his home and program were legitimate, but then cashed monthly Social Security checks of up to $1,000 for personal use -- and not rent.
Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith said the victims were referred to Yarbrough and his accomplices by a Gwinnett County woman who runs a legitimate operation and was not charged.
In Vijay's case, Gwinnett police allege she skimmed more than $10,000 from residents in the last five months. She's also accused of shutting off water utilities at a home on Lawrenceville's Sydney Pond Circle as a means of punishment for using too much water, according to arrest warrants.
One woman called police last month, alleging Vijay threatened to beat her up and lock her in a room for making phone calls, a police report states.
Police believe Vijay operated seven homes around Snellville and Lawrenceville, another home in Loganville and an office in Lilburn where a "pick-up truck full" of financial documents was recently seized, Appleby said. At the time of her arrest, Vijay had 56 clients, ages 18 to 80, who mostly found her via Internet postings and her website, police said.
Investigators said Vijay's businesses operated under numerous names and were a mix of unlicensed and licensed facilities. Both can be legal but different regulations apply.
The Georgia Department of Community Health inspects and regulates personal care homes. Spokeswoman Pam Keene said Thursday the department does not comment on open investigations. A department database shows multiple "statements of deficiency" filed against facilities with connections to Vijay, but details of those reports were not available Thursday.
Personal care homes are defined as facilities that provide basic assistance, such as meal preparation, to two or more non-family members. The department does not regulate independent living facilities, Keene said.
Investigators believe Vijay may have skirted fallout from inspections by moving her clients from home to home, in the way that frequently changing the business name could have helped thwart lawsuits. Her attorney has told other media that the majority of her homes fell under the "independent living facilities" designation.
Vijay's attorney, Harold Holcombe, did not return a message left at his office Tuesday. He has maintained his client's innocence in interviews with other media.
Jailed without bond, Vijay is charged with multiple counts of felony theft by taking and exploitation and abuse of elderly adults. Further charges are likely, police said.