D.C. agency fails elderly and disabled adults in need, report says

September 27, 2012

The District agency responsible for investigating abuse and neglect of elderly and disabled adults is vowing to reform its policies and procedures after a withering report that said it has failed to protect its vulnerable charges.

A 70-page report issued this week by Inspector General Charles J. Willoughby said that Adult Protective Services rarely calls police to step in, even in cases involving physical abuse or misappropriation of money by a caretaker.

“This lack of collaboration and coordination may put at risk the safety and well-being of APS clients and allow criminal activity to continue unabated,” the report said.

It does not cite specific examples of clients who were injured, died or had assets stolen after being brought to the attention of Adult Protective Services. Deputy Inspector General Blanche Bruce declined to provide more details, saying, “The report speaks for itself.”

APS has made no secret of not asking for much police help . In its annual report for 2007, a year when it opened 831 new cases, the agency said only two cases were reported to police one month. It said many clients, who have health problems and dementia, don’t make great witnesses. It said the clients frequently don’t want family members — even those who are abusing them — to be reported to police. Often they fear they will end up in a nursing home if their caretaker is arrested, according to the annual report, which was restated in the IG report.

A spokesman for the Department of Human Services, which oversees APS, said the department is not aware of any clients who have been injured or abused further because of a lack of coordination with police. None of the deaths of 25 clients in the past year is a direct result of a lack of effort by the agency, said the spokesman, Reggie Sanders.

APS has 20 employees, whose average caseload is 30 to 45 cases, Sanders said.

The agency is clearly held in low esteem by many employees of other District agencies and nonprofit groups that are in frequent contact with it. When the inspector general sent out a questionnaire asking for impressions and observations, many of the comments were scathing.

One licensed social worker, for example, wrote: “After many years of being frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from APS, I have reached the point where I do not attempt to utilize their services [because] it has not proven to be a fruitful or worthwhile process.”

The inspector general, whose conclusions were first reported by the Washington Examiner, placed part of the blame on vague policies for interviewing clients and referring abuse to law enforcement. He said other cities and states, such as Virginia, give their employees much more explicit direction. As a result, the report said, individual caseworkers often interpret the policies differently.

In general, the report painted a picture of an agency that is mired in bureaucracy and struggling to keep track of how it is doing. It noted that employees are not required to track client outcomes, and the last time senior management filed an annual report, as required under D.C. law, was for 2008. Sanders, the department spokesman, said APS stopped issuing annual reports when it was determined that a database was not reliable. It has since been redesigned, and the 2012 report should be issued within three months of the calendar year’s end, he said.

As an example of the agency’s bulky bureaucracy, the report noted that early this year the staff had a cache of more than $64,000 in gift cards to Safeway and Target, for social workers to purchase food and household items for clients in need. It did not say whether any client was denied necessary staples but said they may be “at risk” if social workers don’t present an adequate case on their behalf.

In a footnote, the report outlined the complexity in obtaining a card.

Social workers must fill out forms requesting a card, get a supervisor’s approval and then submit it to another supervisor who manages the gift card program. The manager must photocopy the card for the social worker’s signature. After a purchase, the social worker returns the card to the program manager, who contacts the merchant for verification.

Sanders said less than $41,000 in gift cards are now in hand, and the complex process is in place to prevent their misuse.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said that he found the report “astounding” and that he had never heard complaints about the agency before.

“I think I and a lot of other people assumed there’d be a really good working relationship between APS and [police],” he said. “These are criminal activities. Why wouldn’t there be something that ensured, as needed, police are involved? Wow. There’s something very wrong here.”

But Graham said he was heartened by the agency’s willingness to make corrections to its policies and procedures.

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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