The number of adult protective services cases taken on by the Guilford County Division of Social Services (DSS) has skyrocketed in recent years. One key component of that is “elder abuse” – when older people who are physically abused or financially exploited, usually by someone in a position of trust such as a family member or a caretaker.
In fiscal 2011-2012, 169 adult protective cases were accepted for evaluation by Guilford County’s DSS. By fiscal 2013- 2014, that number had grown to 283, and it shot up to 361 the following year. In fiscal 2015-2016, the most recent year with complete figures, 447 cases were accepted.
In some cases, the affected adults are put in the care of the county while in other cases they are connected with outreach services or other action is taken. Most of the situations are those of mere neglect, but more and more the cases involve abuse or exploitation.
Aging and Adult Services Division Director Jenise Davis said this is a serious problem that DSS is seeing with increasing frequency. She said older adults can be abused physically or a caregiver might be doing something like taking an elderly person’s Social Security checks and cashing them.
“Last year was the highest instance of adult protective services reports in Guilford County, and financial exploitation is rapidly increasing,” she said. “The number of adults under guardianship is expected to continue to rise.”
According to Davis, in addition to the increase in volume, the cases are getting harder to handle.
“Cases have become far more challenging, complex and dangerous for our social protective services staff,” she said.
Many people think of the new Guilford County Family Justice Center in downtown Greensboro as a place where battered wives and husbands seek refuge, and it is, but increasingly the center is seeing physical abuse and financial exploitation of older and elderly area residents.
Family Justice Center Director Catherine Johnson said it’s now common to see elderly clients abused.
“The majority of elder abuse cases that happen in the city are going to be around financial crimes,” Johnson said. “However, our oldest client to date at the Family Justice Center has been 97 years old – and that was an adult child physically abusing a parent, which is really common.”
According to Johnson, abuse or financial crimes are often perpetrated by someone who should be looking after the victim and protecting them. She said the center has seen a lot of these types of cases since it opened in June 2015.
“About 6 percent of people who come into the Family Justice Center fall within that elder abuse umbrella where they experience abuse by a caregiver,” Johnson said.
Area forces are uniting to address the problem. Johnson heads a committee on elder justice that meets monthly and addresses issues of this type. She said there are about 40 professional organizations that participate and are coordinating resources and working to offer older adults the services they need. She said there is room for more coordination.
“There’s a big disconnect between the elder services community and the domestic violence arena,” Johnson said.
She added that Guilford County had been chosen as a pilot data collection site by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and the state is tracking the county’s data and efforts.
“We’ve got some really good things going on around that,” she said. “We do a program specific to financial crimes because that’s a really common thing that people are more apt to talk about.”
In the coming weeks, Johnson will be appearing on cable information programs along with representatives of the Greensboro Police Department and the Adult Protective Services Division to help inform people about the problem.
There’s also a walk dedicated to fighting elder abuse on Saturday, June 17 at Triad Park – the Piedmont Triad’s 6th Annual Elder Abuse Awareness Walk, Stroll and Roll.
The “walk” is shorter than most events of this type, but it still gets the point across and raises funds. Johnson said the more public awareness that’s created the more likely people are to refer cases of this type of abuse to DSS and the Family Justice Center. She also said that more awareness helps protect the elderly from scams perpetrated by dishonest businesses.
“For instance,” she said, “right now there’s a tree-trimming service that is ripping people off for $8,000, $10,000, $12,000 – and while it may not be a criminal act because someone willingly gives them the money, we know that it’s a scam.”
Johnson said that in other cases caregivers take elder people’s checks and then give them just enough to live on.
“They have resources,” she said of many elderly adults. “They have retirement funds and they may have some cognitive decline that makes them more likely to not have as good a set of defenses as others. So they are easier targets.”
She said that in some cases older adults are afraid to report a situation where they’re being abused for fear they will be seen as unable to care for themselves.
According to Johnson, while cases of abuse and caregiver exploitation can be addressed by local efforts, phone scams and email scams that target older adults often originate elsewhere and there’s little that can be done to stop those.
“Most scams that happen to older adults are international ones, so we don’t have jurisdictions over them,” Johnson said.