Adult services workers stretched thin

March 11, 2010

Judy Putnam

A rash of news stories about frustrated and angry people seeking help from understaffed state human services offices has revealed to us the strain of too few resources and too many people in need of help.

And a lawsuit over inadequate care for abused and neglected children in Michigan has forced new investments in the child welfare system.

But another story – this one of staff who investigate complaints of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation and who offer independent living help for elderly adults and those adults with disabilities  – was given by the Department of Human Services with pie charts and line graphs at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services earlier this week.

The bottom line is this: The 2002 early-out incentives for state employees permanently reduced the staff available to look out for the frail elderly and other vulnerable adults. (The department lost 2,800 experienced workers in that retirement wave.)

During that wave of retirements, the decision was made by the Engler administration to replace any worker dealing with children, but none of those workers dealing with adults.

The upshot? Michigan has 328 adult services workers, down from 541 adult services workers in 2000. That means caseloads have risen in the Independent Living Services program from 73 cases per worker to 175 cases per worker. Clients used to get four visits from a worker; that’s been cut to two.

Forty-three counties have just one worker and 22 counties have two workers.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic was this: Despite rising referrals of complaints of adults who have been abused or neglected (often by the very people who are entrusted with their care) the number of confirmed instances of mistreatment of vulnerable adults has held steady at around 9,500 per year.

The caseload for Adult Protective Services is 38 per worker; above the national average of 25 cases per worker, the committee was told.

Unfortunately the need for investigations into complaints of elder abuse will only grow as Michigan’s population ages.

Let’s face it – as with caregivers of children, those who live with frail adults are often stressed to the maximum and lash out at very vulnerable people. And as with our children, we must offer protection to those who are unable to protect themselves.

The PowerPoint given by the department ended with a quote from Pearl Buck: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.’’

– Judy Putnam


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