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Survey: Maine DHHS Deluged By Reports Of Abuse Against Elderly, Adults With Disabilities

Some state caseworkers say they’re being overwhelmed by a significant increase in reports of abuse and neglect of adults with disabilities and the elderly.

The issue was identified in a recent survey conducted by the unions that represent state employees. The survey results also point to a lack of training and adequate staffing as just some of the problems affecting a variety of departments.

An investigator with adult protective services who says she’s not speaking on behalf of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and asked that her name not be used says the number of reports of suspected abuse and neglect have been steadily increasing for months, if not years.

“I was in my supervisor’s office the other day just to talk about a case and she looked up and she said, ‘We have had so many reports come in today, that I’m having a hard time just reading them all,’” she says.

The kinds of abuse reported include physical, financial, sexual and cases of neglect.

According to the Maine State Employees Association, caseworkers in Adult Protective Services used to get two new assignments per week, which may involve abuse or other crises. But the union says that new caseload has increased to upward of five per week, and this caseworker laments that as the workload has increased, the number of caseworkers has not.

“We are concerned. I mean, we have seen misfortunes with child services and we don’t want to see that happen with the population we’re trying to protect,” she says.

She’s referring to the abuse deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick, which prompted an investigation into the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Alec Maybarduk, the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, says in the aftermath of those deaths, the state did make some changes to improve conditions within Child Protective Services.

“However, it was late. So we’re really trying to raise the public attention on this now to make sure no further crises happen later,” he says.

Patricia Kimball of the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine, which provides transitional housing and support services to seniors in abusive situations, says she has noticed a slight uptick in numbers. She says that may be due to the state’s growing proportion of seniors, as well as increased awareness about elder abuse, which generates an estimated 14,000 cases a year in Maine but goes largely underreported.

“The national statistics say that one out of every 24 cases is reported,” she says.

The co-chair of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention, Judy Shaw, says financial institutions have increased their reporting efforts after the council launched a Senior Safe Training program in 2014.

“That training program has trained almost 800 bank and credit union personnel throughout the state to identify red flags for elder abuse and elder financial exploitation and to educate them on what their reporting and referral options are,” she says.

But when those reports come in to the state’s Adult Protective Services program, Maybarduk says there aren’t enough caseworkers to handle them. He points to a hiring freeze under former Gov. Paul LePage as contributing to the understaffing problem, which was identified in a recent survey of 1,000 state employees. Inadequate equipment and training, low pay and high turnover are other issues that survey respondents said affect their jobs.

Maybarduk says the issues extend beyond DHHS to the Environmental Protection and Transportation departments and 911 dispatch centers.

“It’s basically time that we stop pretending that this is a problem in one or two agencies and recognize that it’s an issue throughout state government,” he says.

DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew issued a written statement in response to the increased caseload for adult protective services, saying the Department will “review the concerns outlined in (the) survey, get input from frontline workers, and work to improve the system.”

Originally published Feb. 11, 2019 at 5:28 p.m. ET.