District caseworker Delores Roberts recently led two D.C. police officers to a red brick house in Southeast Washington.
"She's got to be moved out of there," Roberts told the officers as they approached the house. Stepping through the broken front door, Roberts, two colleagues and the officers confronted the occupant, a 50-year-old former mental patient.
The woman, who had been living in the house for more than a year without utilities, had been dumping trash and excrement in the back yard, Roberts said.
Neighbors had reported seeing rats near the house. The woman, in an unexplained fit, recently broke the front door and some windows.
After failing to persuade her to leave, the police officers and social workers half-carried, half-dragged the screaming woman from the house and put her into a police van. She was seen by a psychiatrist at D.C. General Hospital and later admitted to St. Elizabeth's Hospital for medical treatment.
"This case is fairly routine," said Karel Cornwell, supervisor of the District's Protective Services for Adults (PSA) program. "Maybe the woman acted up somewhat more violently, but the kind of problem and its range (of difficulty) are absolutely routine."
Using federal Title XX funds, the PSA program helps adults who may be abused, neglected or exploited, Cornwell said. PSA's six-member staff of social workers and paraprofessional caseworkers handle 200 to 300 cases annually, most involving elderly clients. The program's budget totals $164,000, with 75 percent from federal sources.
The program is important, Cornwell said, because "any kind of abuse that happens to children happens to adults."
She cited one case where two elderly women were "lured" from New York by their brother, a reputed alcoholic, who promised to care for them. After they had moved to Washington, the women later told the PSA staff, they had been kept prisoner by their brother and his family. The women were locked in their bedrooms without food for days, and their brother confiscated and cashed their Social Security checks. One of the sisters managed to escape and with the help of police and PSA workers, freed her sister. The two women stayed at a battered women's shelter before being placed by PSA in a licensed boarding house.
"Most of our cases involve exploitation," said caseworker Evelyn Taylor, referring to situations where money and other valuables are taken from elderly people who are too helpless to protest.
Roberts told of one elderly woman who rented rooms in her antique-filled house. As the woman's health and competence failed, her boarders began to rob and threaten her.
"A picture would be there one day and gone the next," said Roberts, who handled the case.
Roberts finally stepped in, collected rent, paid bills and dislodged the troublesome boarders. She also arranged for a conservator to handle the woman's finances. The case took more than a year to resolve.
PSA staff members say a major frustration in their work is a lack of legal authority to intervene in cases of suspected abuse or neglect. If someone is mentally ill or dangerous to himself or others, PSA may intervene with the help of police or officer-agents of the D.C. Mental Health Administration, who have legal authority in such cases. But if someone is senile, alcoholic or confused due to starvation, the PSA staff must often cajole their clients into being helped.
Elizabeth Vegos, a PSA social worker, recalls spending almost an entire day persuading a 65-year-old man, who was starving and senile, to enter D.C. General for treatment. The man, a recent widower, was incapable of caring for himself. He had been living alone, hallucinating that his wife was still alive. Vegos persuaded the man to accompany her to D.C. General, and stayed with him for several hours until he could be admitted to the hospital.
Cornwell has worked with the D.C. Office on Aging, the Legal Council for the Elderly and the D.C. Providers Council for Services to the Elderly, trying to enact protective legislation for adults.
The legislation, Cornwell said, would give PSA greater clout in handling cases and allow it to intervene in cases where people may need help. In one case recently, for example, PSA staff members could not investigate a reported abuse because the victim's alleged abusers turned them away at the door, she said. CAPTION: Picture, Karel Cornwell, center, supervisor of Adult Protective Services, and two of her workers, Evelyn Taylor and Grace Fitz. By Craig Herndon - The Washington Post