State help for disabled lags years after approval

Posted: January 31, 2014

MORE THAN three decades ago, state lawmakers established the Pennsylvania Department of Aging - an agency dedicated to protecting residents 60 and older from neglect, abuse and fraud.

There were few safeguards, however, for people under 60 with disabilities.

So in 2010, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed a law - the Adult Protective Services Act - designed to help adults, 18 to 59, with physical or intellectual disabilities who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.

Yet, more than three years later, the program, administered by the Department of Public Welfare, is not fully operational.

The $3.5 million in funding didn't kick in until this fiscal year. The state has yet to select the contractors who will eventually run the program.

At the moment, the state hotline is not well publicized and hard to find. There are only seven investigators statewide to check on potential victims who are not served by any other agency.

Although many potential victims are mentally disabled and might resist help, the investigators do not have law-enforcement powers to remove them from dangerous homes. Their only recourse is to petition the court for emergency guardianship, but those cases are rare.

The program is evolving and the hotline number, with a rotating staff of eight, will soon change as new contracts get awarded, said Matthew Jones, acting director of the Bureau of Human Services Licensing within the Department of Public Welfare.

"This is a service that has never existed in the commonwealth previously, so all of it is under development," Jones said.

The hotline averages roughly 30 calls a week, Jones said yesterday.

He said he doesn't know how many of those complaints have been substantiated.

"The goal of any substantiated case," he said "is to remove the person from danger, and how that happens is almost unique in every single case."

The hotline has been up and running since July, but since then the agency has gone to court only once to seek emergency guardianship, he said.

"This program is in its infancy but it grows daily both in scope and experience and I expect that at some future point it will be as proficient and as helpful as the Department of Aging's older-adult protective services program," Jones said.

"I'm confident that we will be able to establish a system that will be responsive to the needs of individuals for whom, not too long ago, there were no protective services."


On Twitter: @wendyruderman

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