‘Screaming for help’: Adult Protective Services in need of more funding, personnel

Investigating the welfare of 600 vulnerable adults in five counties rests on the shoulders of one couple: Brenda and John Defler.

The Deflers are the only investigators for Adult Protective Services Unit 11, which includes Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson and Jennings counties.

They open between two and 10 cases each day.

Six hundred are open now; on average, 50 per year are in Brown County.

Many of those involve senior citizens, John Defler said.

Areawide, the majority of them involve financial exploitation, he said.

“Unfortunately a lot of the perpetrators are family, with people being out of work — and the increase of drug abuse has had a huge impact on that as well,” he said.

“They want to access Mom, Dad or Grandma and Grandpa’s money to buy drugs.”

The second-most common type of case in Unit 11 is self-neglect, Defler said. A resident’s utilities might have been shut off, or he or she might be unable to go and get groceries, cook or take care of their medications.

Defler’s biggest frustration is family members who do not help.

“We’ve had cases where a son or daughter live across the road, literally, from their parents, and they don’t do anything,” he said.

That’s where APS steps in. It can work with virtually any other group to bring in additional resources, like Home Helpers or Thrive Alliance.

APS investigators must attempt the least restrictive intervention first, such as bringing services into the person’s home that will keep them safer, Defler said.

If a person is severely disabled to the point they cannot live alone safely, and there is no other responsible party, the Deflers can file for a protective services order — “which, in essence, makes us the guardian. We take control over their health care, their placement. If they have an estate beyond a fixed income, we will find a bank or trust department to serve as a guardian of that estate,” Defler said.

The orders remain indefinitely and are reviewed every six months by a court.

“We have literally hundreds of those. We’re responsible now for over 250 people,” Defler said of Unit 11.

“Many of those, unless someone steps up to be the guardian, they stay in effect virtually until they pass (away).

“That’s one reason we, as an agency, are screaming for help.”

More aid coming

The state has begun to hear those pleas.Under a bill passed by the General Assembly this session, the Family and Social Services Administration must submit a report to legislators before the end of the year about the state of its Adult Protective Services branch.

Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield, who sponsored the bill, said the agency needs more resources, especially as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age.

The report will focus on determining the staffing levels necessary to efficiently and safely run the department and the circumstances that result in emergency placement of an endangered adult.

Now, the equivalent of about 30 full-time investigators oversee the state’s 92 counties, Crider said.

Crider was inspired to carry the bill after learning about an adult-care facility in Greenfield that was running under the agency’s radar while the facility’s owners neglected the adults they were charged with caring for, according to court documents.

The report will give lawmakers an idea of what improvements need to be made at the department and will help them prepare to allocate extra funding next year to pay additional staff, Crider said.

The report is due by Dec. 1.

Earlier this month, lawmakers moved to allocate $1.1 million to Adult Protective Services to allow the agency to add 18 new investigators. But more could be needed, Crider said.

“We have an aging population, and we need to address this,” Crider said.

Defler, who’s worked with APS for nearly 28 years, agrees.

He said when the law was written that created APS, the intention was to have one investigator in each county.

APS has 35 statewide; the state has 92 counties.

For comparison, Child Protective Services has about 1,300, he said.

Unit 11 receives “thousands” of calls per year from people wanting more information about APS services, or direction on what to do with their own parents; and calls regarding the individuals the agency is responsible for.

One part-time employee jots down basic information; she will direct callers to services if she can.

If not, a case is opened and either Brenda or John will call the person back and determine if a home visit is necessary or not, he said.

Defler said Unit 11 could easily use one investigator per county, plus a full-time employee who compiles data. A continuing services manager — to monitor ongoing cases and services to make sure people are getting what they need — is also on his wish list.

How it works

Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Pittman often comes across adults who may need APS assistance when he is called to welfare checks and medical emergency calls.“Some people, I come in and I look around, and it just looks like they are having a tough time being able to take care of themselves, get food, mow the grass or take out the trash,” he said.

That’s when he calls Defler.

“They might think they are actually doing OK, because maybe that’s what they’re used to. When I walk in and see it, it’s like, ‘You might need some help here.’”

Officers err on the side of caution when it comes to the safety of children and adults, Pittman said.

“We would rather call them (APS), even if it turns out to be unfounded. Maybe we see a concern and have them check it out just to be safe,” Pittman said.

“Sometimes people are resistant if John gets involved. It’s like, ‘I’m OK. I don’t need any help.’ They want to be independent,” Pittman said.

“In a lot of situations, maybe they don’t have family around here or anybody to check on them. It seems like when you’re talking to them, they’re having trouble making decisions. … Those are always concerns,” he said.

Pittman has seen “a few” cases over the years of possible financial exploitation, when a live-in relative is accused of stealing from the person or mismanaging his or her money. Sometimes, those concerns come from another family member who is not living in the home.

If fraud is suspected, it’s up to the officer’s discretion whether to involve APS or not, he said.

APS sometimes receives calls from bank workers who suspect a person is being financially exploited.

If APS believes that is the case, the agency will notify local police, sometimes the state police, and, in a few cases, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

In rural areas, building trust can be an obstacle, too, Defler said.

“We try to treat people as people and individuals. We do our best to be as low-key as we can, because a lot of the folks we are trying to help are frightened or they’re unable to understand completely,” he said.

Greenfield Daily Reporter staff writers Samm Quinn and Caitlin VanOverberghe contributed to this report.

How to report

Everyone is required by law to report all cases of suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation to the nearest Adult Protective Services office or to local law enforcement.

APS’ state hotline is 1-800-992-6978.

APS Unit 11 Director John Defler encourages Brown County residents to contact the Unit 11 office directly by calling the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office at 812-379-1670.

Defining abuse, neglect and exploitation

Abuse: Any touching (battery) of a person in a rude and insolent manner.

Neglect: The intentional withholding of essential care or service. Abandonment is also considered neglect.

Exploitation: The intentional misuse of a person’s property, person or services for financial gain.

An endangered adult must be at least 18, and incapable by reason of mental illness, developmental/intellectual disability, dementia, other physical or mental incapacity of managing or directing the management of their own property or providing or directing self-care. An endangered adult is harmed or threatened with harm as a result of neglect, battery or exploitation of the individual’s personal services or property.

Source: Indiana Family and Social Services Administration