Study: Agency improves in handling of abuse, but questions remain

Saturday January 26, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Vermont has made big progress in clearing up a backlog of investigations into reports of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of the elderly and other vulnerable adults, according to both critics and defenders of the state’s Adult Protective Services system.

But there’s concern among some lawmakers and advocates that the division of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living may be clearing the backlog, in part, by being too selective in taking new cases.

And the department’s commissioner acknowledged in an interview Thursday and in testimony to the House Human Services Committee that there are big gaps in the data used by lawmakers trying to measure the division’s performance.

The House Human Services Committee heard testimony Thursday that APS failed to intervene in a Bennington County case of an 89-year-old woman whose daughter was threatening to kill her.

Sandy Conrad, executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Area Agency on Aging, said repeated calls from her office to APS beginning at 1:13 p.m. on a Friday in November drew no response until the following Monday. After a cursory review, APS sent a letter to Conrad’s agency saying, "The available evidence indicated that abuse, neglect or exploitation did not occur," she told the committee.

Despite appeals to more senior APS staff, there’s been "nothing to date that changes this decision. And that perpetrator still lives in that household and is still a threat to that situation," Conrad said. The daughter wanted her mother to go to a nursing home, to get her "out of the way because she wanted her partner’s mother to be able to come down and live with them," she added.

Conrad’s organization is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the state 13 months ago alleging that cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of elderly and disabled Vermonters were being allowed to languish for months before being investigated by APS.

She and Vermont Legal Aid lawyer Barbara Prine said the state had hired more investigators, created a financial fraud unit in the division and taken other steps to clear up the backlog.

But they said the division rejects far too many cases that should be investigated.

"We feel like more and more calls are being screened out, even though we’ve got the investigators," Conrad said. One result, she added, is that "there’s not a backlog and it’s all looking way better."

Prine said Vermont has one of the lowest rates in the country of cases being "substantiated" -- found credible -- by state investigators. Depending on how the rate is counted, "It’s either 7 percent or 14 percent, when the national average is 44 percent. There’s no reason to believe that in Vermont we are abusing people at one-quarter the national average."

Susan Wehry, commissioner of the department that includes APS, told the committee the division had "made great strides in 2012."

"Many in the community will agree that our investigators are not only doing a bang-up job of investigation but also in building the kinds of networks and communication, participation and local coalitions around elder justice to really improve the whole network of adult protective services," she said.


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