Finally, some promising news to report on the largely invisible problem of abuse and exploitation of the state's most vulnerable adults: Vermont Legal Aid reported today that a broad coalition of advocacy groups has reached an agreement with the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL) to address the department's serious backlog of investigations involving allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of old, frail and disabled Vermonters.
"Appalling," "unconscionable," "illegal" and "a crisis and complete breakdown of the system" are just some of the ways advocates for the elderly and disabled described the slow response times by Adult Protective Services (APS) in recent years to its unaddressed caseload.
Yesterday's deal puts into place a "corrective action plan" that will finally address hundreds of backlogged complaints of physical, sexual and financial abuse and exploitation of vulnerable Vermonters that have gone un-investigated by APS for months at a time, if ever.
In effect, the agreement, brokered with DAIL by Vermont Legal Aid, the Community of Vermont Elders and Disability Rights Vermont, formally acknowledges what advocates have been saying for years: that Adult Protective Services wasn't obeying state law.
Advocates charged that DAIL’s ability to react to specific allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation had become so compromised in recent years that the state was “triaging” calls based on their severity and investigating only a tiny fraction of the total complaints it received. Some APS caseworkers were reportedly taking on double, and sometimes triple, the nationally recommended caseload.
"Once we learned about the backlog, we had to act," says lead attorney Barbara Prine, from Vermont Legal Aid's Disability Law Project, in a written statement released Wednesday. "And, we are pleased that the department agreed with us that the situation required immediate corrective action."
But Prine is being generous by describing the state's response as "immediate." In a November 25, 2009 story, Seven Days first brought to light the fact that advocates had been frustrated for years by APS's notoriously slow responses to all but the most dire and life-threatening complaints that come their way.
Moreover, the problem only grew worse as the economy tanked. In 2009, the number of reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation APS received jumped 48 percent over the previous year. Interestingly, that spike in complaints coincided with a 17 percent reduction in DAIL's overall staffing due to statewide budget cuts.
Yet, more than a year after that initial story ran, the problem still persisted, and according to some advocates, had even grown worse. Today, Vermont Legal Aid reports that as of December 2010, there were still as many as 300 outstanding cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation waiting to be assigned to an investigator. This despite a state law that requires an investigation be opened within 48 hours of receiving such a complaint.
As part of the corrective action plan, DAIL has agreed to hire additional temporary and permanent investigators to clear its backlog of complaints by October 1, and it will re-contact the complainants of all un-investigated cases that were outstanding as of May 15. The department also agreed to set a maximum caseload limit for all investigators, and implement a prioritization system that ensures a rapid response to all emergency cases. The Department further promised to respond to all calls with an initial interview within 48 hours, as required under current law.
Finally, DAIL agreed to create an advisory committee to continually monitor the department's progress, and report back if additional improvements are needed.
Such news couldn't be more welcome to advocates who have labored for years to improve APS response times.
"No frail elder or other vulnerable adult should ever have to endure abuse," says Gini Milkey, executive director of the Community of Vermont Elders. "That up to 300 cases were languishing un-investigated is unconscionable — and it was illegal."