Adult Protective Services Workers Save Lives
With elder abuse cases rising and California's aging population growing, a strong, statewide training program is needed now more than ever.

Blog post Frank J. Mecca

Imagine getting a call that your elderly father – who you thought died two years ago – is alive. An Adult Protective Services worker shares that your father, who lives 100 miles from you, who you thought succumbed to complications of a traumatic brain injury, is the victim of physical, financial and psychological abuse. For several years, he’s been isolated and neglected by two people you thought were his caregivers.

You, your siblings and father were estranged and only occasionally talked by phone before his supposed death. It’s complicated, as family often is when there is divorce and pain from past transgressions. You and your siblings attempted to get information about funeral services, locate a death certificate. But there were dead ends and many unanswered questions.

This is the true story of an aging adult’s abuse and neglect. A family’s heartbreak. The profound work of a knowledgeable, experienced Adult Protective Services social worker who saved a man’s life.

Devastating physical, financial and emotional neglect and abuse is what a growing number of aging and dependent adults experience in California. Statewide, reports to county Adult Protective Services nearly doubled since 2000.

Abuse and neglect crushes people’s finances, brings on early hospitalization and even leads to death. Victims of elder abuse are three times more likely to be admitted to a hospital and are three times more likely to die compared to those who have not been mistreated.

Fraud via social media and online marketing has made it easier for criminals to take advantage of older adults. Financial abuse alone costs older Americans more than $2.6 billion annually, according to a 2009 study.

Adding to the complexity in keeping adults safe is the sheer number of aging adults in our communities who need support now or will in the coming years. California’s aging population is rapidly growing. The population over age 65 is projected to increase from 4.3 million in 2010 to 6.3 million by 2020, and will double to 8.6 million by 2030. The oldest demographic, those 85 and older, will grow by more than 70 percent between 2010 and 2030.

The primary safety net that protects our aging adults is county APS programs and the social workers they employ. In the case above, APS immediately responded when they received a suspected abuse report by staff at a program for people with traumatic brain injuries who noticed this man’s caregivers belittling him and claiming he could not manage his finances.

A county APS social worker with nearly a decade of experience visited the man’s home and found him emaciated, disheveled and confined to a wheelchair, although he later told her he was able to walk. Using what she’s learned to not agitate alleged abusers, the worker was able to talk one-on-one with the man and learned that he was kept from communicating with anyone, even family, for years. He was afraid to ask even mundane questions like the date or to change the TV channel because he had been beaten in the past for doing so. The caregivers-turned-abusers had taken over his apartment, his debit card and checkbook. The man feared for his life.

Thanks to a good working relationship with law enforcement, the social worker was able to get an emergency protective order granted, though law enforcement was initially reluctant to become involved. On the surface, it did not appear the man was being physically restrained. The social worker shared her expertise and law enforcement agreed with her findings: This man’s life was in danger. He was reunited with his family and placed in a licensed board and care facility that accepted him at a reduced rate because of the social worker’s advocacy on his behalf.

The signs of elder and dependent abuse are often unknown or missed by many aging adults, their family, friends, and the public until county Adult Protective Services workers step in. The complexity of many cases make it difficult for the lay person to help.

This is why having highly skilled APS workers armed with the latest information on aging and all forms of neglect and abuse – financial, physical, mental and sexual – and how to work with other agencies and community partners is a crucial need in California.

CWDA, California Elder Justice Coalition and California Commission on Aging, with the support of a coalition of agencies and individuals, are requesting $5 million in the 2016-17 state budget to build a strong training program for county APS workers.

A strong, statewide training system would allow workers to receive standardized basic and advanced training, to learn from one another, and to share the latest information, research and best practices for serving aging adults and the complexities seen in financial, physical and psychological neglect and abuse cases.

The numbers don’t lie: California’s aging population is rapidly growing and living longer. And APS calls and open cases are rising as a result.

Well-trained APS workers know the signs of neglect and abuse better than anyone. They know how to honor and respect people as they age and balance that with appropriate and urgent interventions. But they need to be equipped with the latest knowledge to ensure our aging family members, friends and neighbors can safely live their lives and have the most highly trained staff protecting them.

- Frank Mecca

Frank is the Executive Director of CWDA.