Last week the state of Vermont was officially sued by Disability Rights Vermont and the Community of Vermont Elders, two advocacy groups for elderly and disabled residents in the state. The main allegation is against the state’s Adult Protective Services program which they claim has failed to improve its backlog of unassigned cases and respond in a timely manner to valid concerns of abuse and neglect against those suffering from severe disabling conditions.
The Adult Protective Services agency, in this case run by the state’s Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living, is designed to protect the rights of those adults in our society who are most vulnerable – the elderly, the disabled, and the mentally handicapped – from being physically abused, neglected, and financially exploited.
The lawsuit cites several specific cases in which case workers reported abuse or neglect, but received no immediate attention. In one of the case examples provided by the advocacy groups, an elderly woman was found dead three days after reported neglect. APS had called for more information, but failed to send an investigator out to check on her.
This and the other cases show numerous violations of the requirement, by law, that Adult Protective Services respond within 48 hours to all reports of abuse or neglect. In fact, Vermont has one of the slowest response times in the entire country.
Upon being confronted by these groups, Susan Wehry, commissioner of the Department which runs APS, admitted to the failure of the current system, stating that it was not currently designed to respond to evening and weekend calls, but that they would work to solve the immediate problems while improving the system.
Disability Rights and Legal Aid in Vermont finally threatened Vermont APS in May with a lawsuit, including as their ultimatum the rapid reduction of unassigned cases and improve response times to legitimate abuse and neglect reports.
In spite of the Department’s agreement to the terms of improvement, the Vermont APS’s backlog problem has not been resolved, with over 300 cases currently unassigned in the system, an increase in the problem rather than an improvement. The only apparent effort APS made to comply was to overload its present investigators with more than double their previous caseload. Reason would dictate that if Vermont’s APS investigators weren’t able to handle their previous load of cases in a timely manner, a double of their workload would be an unreasonable expectation.
The elderly and disabled advocacy groups represented in the suit are pushing for interference from the Washington Superior Court to force Vermont to correct the problems in its Adult Protective Services Program so those who are unprotected can once again find justice and help when they need it most.
The commissioner for the Department of Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living said she had not as of yet read the lawsuit, while others in the department weren’t available for comment. If Disability Rights Vermont and the other groups represented win their lawsuit against the State of Vermont, there is the chance that those who are served by the state’s APS will see a marked improvement in rapid response and follow through. Without winning the suit, it is doubtful things will change, since the Department made minimal, ineffective efforts to reform themselves before the lawsuit. This lawsuit, therefore, is very important to the rights of the elderly, disabled, and mentally handicapped, some of the most helpless in our society, to protection from inhumane treatment.
Just as there has been much recent discussion of reviewing the application and appeal process for Social Security Disability to ensure that our society’s most needful members are protected, we can only hope that a successful outcome in this case will result in better care for Vermont’s disabled and elderly in the future.