Wednesday December 14, 2011

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) -- Groups representing the elderly and disabled sued Vermont on Wednesday, saying the state has a backlog on hundreds of investigations of physical abuse and financial exploitation of its most vulnerable residents.

Adult Protective Services, a unit of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, is failing to respond in a timely manner to cases of abuse and neglect that put people's lives at risk, said the groups Disability Rights Vermont and the Community of Vermont Elders.

"Adult Protective Services has continued to allow hundreds of allegations of abuse, neglect and exploitation to wait for months before investigating," despite complaints by the groups and promises of corrective action, said Barbara Prine, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid, which is representing the groups bringing the lawsuit.

"In addition, Vermont has assigned investigators caseloads twice the national average, thereby making it impossible for investigators to respond to allegations in the urgent manner that they deserve," Prine said.

The groups said they want the Washington Superior Court, where the lawsuit was filed, to order the state to fix the problems.

Susan Wehry, commissioner of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, said the problems with Adult Protective Services had been growing for years, but progress was being made toward turning the situation around.

"From the beginning, we have taken the most serious allegations and treated those as priorities," Wehry said. "We're in a triage situation. The most serious cases are going to go first.


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She added: "There has never been, not at any point, a backlog of high-priority cases."

The lawsuit listed several cases in which caseworkers, who Prine said were usually working for Area Agencies on Aging, visited clients and found they had been neglected, abused or exploited by caregivers.

"Vulnerable adults are people incapable of protecting themselves from the nephew who steals the Social Security check, or the caregiver who leaves a woman with physical and cognitive limitations sitting in her feces, or the man with a traumatic brain injury who is frightened of the man who threatens to beat him," Prine said.

The groups also released copies of a report by Stateline.org, a news service operated by the Pew Center for the States, which detailed additional cases in Vermont. In one, an elderly woman with severe dementia was the subject of a report to APS about suspected abuse and neglect on Sept. 16. The agency called back the next day to get more detail, but no one was sent to her home. Three days later, the woman was dead.

Legal Aid and Disability Rights Vermont said they had been pressing for improvements in the APS system since late last year, when they learned that an investigations backlog had been piling up for five or six years.

On March 28, Wehry wrote a nine-page letter to the groups, part of which acknowledged their complaint that the state was not responding adequately, especially to abuse complaints received on nights and weekends. "APS is staffed 5 days a week ... We do not have the staff or resource capacity to staff the program after business hours," she wrote.

But Wehry promised improvements. "I see the situation as a two-phase process: one is to solve the immediate problems facing APS and the second is to start working toward a future in which (we) have the APS system we want in place."

In May, under threat of a lawsuit, the state entered into a corrective action plan it had agreed to with the advocacy groups. They said Wednesday that APS hadn't met the terms of that agreement, including that the backlog of cases not assigned to an investigator be cleared by Oct. 1 and that "all reports will be investigated when there is a credible allegation of abuse of a vulnerable person."

The state sought to reduce the case backlog in November merely by roughly doubling the number of cases assigned to each investigator, with the number of cases handled by each jumping from about 25 -- the national standard -- to 40 to 50.

According to state law, when APS receives an allegation of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an elderly or disabled person, it is required to launch an investigation within 48 hours. Legal Aid lawyer Michael Benvenuto said that is tied with one other state for the slowest response time in the country.

But in many instances, even that standard isn't met, they said, and despite the corrective action plan, the problem appears to be getting worse. Legal Aid said that as of February, APS had a backlog of 272 cases that hadn't been assigned to an investigator. By Oct. 23, that number had grown to 320 cases, the groups said.

Wehry disputed those figures, saying that as of two weeks ago, 158 uninvestigated complaints were on file with the agency. Prine said that new, lower number was a result of nearly doubling investigator workloads in November.