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 said she’s not speaking on behalf of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and asked that her name not be used said 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 said.
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 said that new caseload has increased to as many as five per week, and this caseworker lamented 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 said, referring to the deaths of 10-year-old Marissa Kennedy and 4-year-old Kendall Chick allegedly at the hands of their caregivers, which prompted an investigation into the Department of Health and Human Services.
Alec Maybarduk, the executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said 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 said.
Patricia Kimball of the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine, which provides transitional housing and support services to seniors in abusive situations, said she has noticed a slight uptick in numbers. She said 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 said.
The co-chair of the Maine Council for Elder Abuse Prevention, Judy Shaw, said 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 said.
But when those reports come in to the state’s Adult Protective Services program, Maybarduk said there aren’t enough caseworkers to handle them. He pointed 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 said 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 said.
DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in a statement that the department will “review the concerns outlined in [the] survey, get input from frontline workers, and work to improve the system.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.