State says new agency can handle big hike in hotline calls on abuse of disabled

News-DemocratJuly 22, 2013 

The director of the state agency given the added responsibility of protecting disabled adults who live at home predicts 4,225 hotline calls may occur as a result of a new law signed two weeks ago by Gov. Pat Quinn.

This projection represents about a two-fold increase from the approximately 1,500 calls for help received last year by the agency that previously handled the calls, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Human Services.

The new law, the Adult Protective Services Act, transfers responsibility for protecting homebound adults ages 18 to 59 from the OIG, which had only five investigators statewide, to the state Department on Aging, which has nearly 350 trained caseworkers.

Last year, before receiving its added responsibility, the Department on Aging received about 12,000 calls for help for residents at least 60 years old.

The Department on Aging's director, John K. Holton, said the agency is relying on caseworkers from 41 non-profit agencies already in place to handle the increase.

"The breadth and scope of the network... we are literally relying on and betting on (that) to be the best answer for improving what we all would say is a system that didn't work as it should have," Holton said. The Adult Protective Services hotline number for both disabled adults ages 18-59 living at home and the elderly is (866) 800-1409.

The transfer of responsibility to include the protection of homebound disabled adults stems from an investigative series published last year by the News-Democrat -- "Hidden suffering, hidden death" -- which reported that the OIG/DHS failed to investigate the deaths of 53 disabled persons living at home from 2003 to 2011. Copies of confidential reports showed that the reason the deaths were not investigated was that "the dead are ineligible for services."

The newspaper also reported that hundreds of calls each year to the former OIG hotline were ignored or referred to other agencies without follow-up to make sure that problems were resolved. In dozens of these cases, severely disabled adults died within a few days or weeks after coming to the attention of the hotline. In many cases, they were found to have lived in horrific conditions that led to their deaths.

The series prompted the resignation of the OIG's director and the issuance of an executive order by Quinn directing that all deaths connected to calls to the hotline be investigated, and that law enforcement be immediately contacted in every abuse and neglect case where caseworkers suspected that criminal laws were broken.

After meetings during the summer between advocacy groups, state lawmakers and a special team from the governor's office, a decision was made to transfer responsibility for these disabled adults to the much larger Department on Aging.

Lois Moorman, program administrator for the department's Office of Adult Protective Services, said about $6-million has been transferred from DHS to cover the cost of providing services to the additional disabled adults.

Moorman said that part of the new law may lead to increased cooperation with law enforcement concerning abuse and neglect of the disabled and with local coroners or medical examiners when a death occurs.

"One thing that is a strength of ours is that over the years, we have developed a relationship with law enforcement, but House Bill 948 (the new law) certainly further strengthens that relationship," Moorman said.

He added, "It was our practice to refer to law enforcement when we felt that an alleged victim or victims who had been abused was at risk. So, we will continue that process. However, the (new) law really strengthened that and not only does it obligate us to report to law enforcement, but likewise obligates law enforcement to get back with us within a defined period of time. We see that as a strengthening of a partnership."

The new law also requires setting up various Fatality Review Teams throughout the state to investigate the deaths of disabled persons living at home whose deaths are suspected to be the result of abuse or neglect.

Moorman said that no employees of the OIG's former hotline have been transferred to her department. Both she and Holton said that efforts will be made to fully investigate each hotline call for help as long as basic criteria are met, which is that the disabled person is aged 18 to 59 and there is reason to suspect abuse, neglect or financial exploitation.

"I think we're really improved, and we are well prepared to take on those additional case," Moorman said.

Moorman said her department inherited about 150 unresolved cases from OIG/DHS.

"At this point in time we are relying very strongly on the (hotline caller's) information to make that decision that 'yes,' this is a person who fits the description of having a disability...We really need to rely on the reporter, their description of the situation," she said.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com and 239-2625.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com and 239-2570

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