Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
Reports of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation in Wilson County have more than doubled in the past year alone, officials say.
The Wilson County Department of Social Services’ Adult Protective Services accepted 217 cases for investigation for those three criteria during the 2018-19 fiscal year. Caretaker neglect and self-neglect account for more than half of those cases. Financial exploitation came in as third most reported, according to the agency.
Of those 217 cases investigated last year, 57 were substantiated, according to figures. That number could continue to rise through this month or early August depending on the type of case. DSS officials have 30 days to investigate abuse or neglect and 45 days to investigate an exploitation case.
The percentage of adult referrals is increasing at a higher percentage than referrals of children, officials say. And given the number of older adults in Wilson County, DSS officials expect that trend to continue.
According to the N.C. Division of Aging and Adult Services, Wilson is one of several counties in North Carolina where the number of adults older than 65 has already exceeded the number of children under 17. That trend is expected to continue and encompass all of North Carolina by 2025.
DSS officials say that’s why it’s vital to educate the community on the issue and implement ways to prevent it. The agency’s goal in the next year is to develop even more prevention-style programs.
“We’re trying to get in early before abuse or neglect or exploitation has happened and work with those populations,” said Don Hicks, DSS’ Adult and Family Services program manager. “We’re trying to look at who we see that’s vulnerable and what are the issues, so we can start working pro-actively in those areas.”
Hicks said the agency relies on the community to report concerns. Those who do report an instance of suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation can do so anonymously.
“Anybody in the community can call in a report,” said Nikki Mears, DSS’ adult intervention team leader. “It can be law enforcement, hospitals, doctors’ offices, a concerned neighbor or family member. We encourage people if they don’t know all the answers to call us and give us all the information they have.”
Once a case is reported, DSS workers determine if it meets the agency’s screening criteria.
Mears said once that report meets the criteria for adult protective services intervention, staffers go out and start an evaluation with that individual.
Self-neglect can include someone with dementia who’s progressively getting worse. The person may not be taking care of his or her personal hygiene or the home is filthy, or there have been reports of the person leaving the stove on.
“Usually we try and bring in family,” Mears said. “Sometimes family may not live close by or be aware of the situation. We really partner with them to help them come up with a solution. We want to involve their natural support system and build on that.”
During the 30-day evaluation, staff members meet with the adults themselves and determine what’s needed.
“We always try when we substantiate cases to find the least restrictive measure of intervention,” Mears said. “We want to allow people to live in their own homes. Nobody wants to be removed and placed into a facility.”
Mears said adults have the right of self-determination, and they have the right to live in substandard conditions if they choose as long as they don’t have cognitive impairments that affect their decision-making.
Officials say they work with families and community resources as well, especially if an older adult has a lack of food in the home.
CARETAKER NEGLECT AND EXPLOITATION
Caretaker neglect can include a legal guardian, power of attorney or someone who fails to provide services necessary to avoid physical harm or mental anguish and to maintain mental health of the disabled adult, according to the state.
That could be failure to provide adequate food, shelter or clothing, failure to supervise or failing to meet the person’s medical needs.
Financial exploitation is another category DSS officials are seeing more of when investigating cases.
“Most of the time those reports come from the banks themselves,” Mears said, adding that family members do call in and report that as well.
She said the banks may see something curious, including frequent amount of large amounts of cash withdrawals. The alleged perpetrator will sometimes even take the elderly person along to the bank. Another sign could include the older adult not talking much during the transactions at the bank.
“I think as a whole, the state is seeing an increase of exploitation cases,” Mears said. “There has been a push in the past several years to educate financial institutions and banks.”
Mears said if DSS workers receive a report, they meet with the adults and tell them of the allegations.
“We would also talk to the alleged perpetrator,” she said.
DSS works closely with law enforcement in cases of abuse and exploitation. The agency also monitors adult care homes and family care homes in Wilson County. The state regulates skilled nursing facilities.
Mears said those who suspect nursing home staff is not caring for their loved ones appropriately can call DSS to request an investigation.
Mears said even if a report doesn’t meet the criteria for adult protective services, but there is enough in a report to cause caseworkers to be concerned about what’s going on in the home, they will call that older adult and screen him or her for outreach.
She said DSS is also available for families who may need guidance ensuring their loved one is being take care of appropriately.
Mears said it’s not the reporting person’s role to verify that abuse is occurring, a person only needs to alert the agency of suspicions.
To report a concern of elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, contact DSS at 252-206-4000 and ask to speak with an adult protective services intake social worker. After hours or holidays, call 911, and someone will contact an on-call staff member.
Here are some of the signs of elder abuse:
• Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions and burns may be an indication of physical abuse, neglect or mistreatment.
• Unexplained withdrawal from normal activities, a sudden change in alertness and unusual depression may be indicators of emotional abuse.
• Bruises around the breasts or genital area can occur from sexual abuse.
• Sudden changes in financial situations may be the result of exploitation.
• Bedsores, unattended medical needs, poor hygiene and unusual weight loss are indicators of possible neglect.
• Behavior such as belittling, threats and other uses of power and control by spouses are indicators of verbal or emotional abuse.
• Strained or tense relationships, frequent arguments between the caregiver and elderly person are also signs.