The average Vermonter probably assumes that all reports of elder abuse or neglect, once received by the state’s Adult Protective Services (APS), receive prompt and diligent attention.
Even if this average Vermonter has seen news about the huge backlog of uninvestigated cases in recent years, she or he might believe that things are now under control. Because Susan Wehry, the commissioner of the Department of Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), gives the impression that everything is fine now. “The crisis is over. We are stable.”
Yes, the backlog has been dramatically reduced; but it is very important to notice that APS accepted about 29 percent fewer cases for investigation in 2012 than in the previous year. That’s more than 400 fewer than in 2011.
What does this mean? Is it possible that the number of baseless reports has suddenly increased by almost one-third? Or could it be that APS is rejecting a greater number of reports to keep the backlog low? It may be a combination of these two factors, but the fact is that we do not know.
The APS unit of DAIL was ordered to undergo an evaluation last year. Unfortunately the investigation was not independent, and did not result in an adequate critique or recommendations.
We need to know more. The directors of Vermont’s five Area Agencies on Aging are extremely concerned that APS is not sufficiently protecting elders and disabled adults in accordance with state statutes. Our staff has reported incidents of people close to elders stealing money or prescription drugs, and cases of neglect and verbal abuse. We need to be certain that APS properly follows up on such cases.
The Legislature, too, has shown concern about the performance of Adult Protective Services. Last year it passed a bill to require monthly reporting from APS, which Gov. Peter Shumlin vetoed.
Nationwide, on average, 44 percent of accepted cases are substantiated to be abuse or neglect. The substantiation rate in Vermont ranks among the lowest, at only 7 percent to 14 percent of cases. And despite the fact that Vermont statutes allow a response time among the slowest in the nation (48 hours), APS routinely takes even longer than that to check on vulnerable elders and disabled adults.
We would not accuse APS investigators of willfully shirking their duties. It may be that the department simply lacks the necessary resources or procedures. To get to the root of the problem, APS must become more transparent and cooperative so the issues can be identified and resolved.
Now the Vermont House of Representatives is presenting another bill, with concessions, aiming to avoid a second veto from Shumlin. We have not heard that Shumlin’s opinion has changed, so if the average Vermonter is worried upon learning the facts, then she or he should contact the governor and tell him so.
We all should be worried: Most of us have a friend or relative who is old, and most of us will grow old ourselves.
Vermonters place a high priority on having adequate police departments and Child Protective Services to ensure people’s safety and security. These services have around-the-clock phone access, and they follow up promptly. The elderly and disabled are some of our most vulnerable citizens, and they deserve the same.
Joyce Lemire is executive director of Senior Solutions, the nonprofit Area Agency on Aging that serves Windsor and Windham counties.MORE IN Perspective
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