LIMA — Across the region, county agencies in charge of investigating elder abuse are mobilizing to come up with ways to capitalize on new-found generosity from Ohio’s state government.
The latest opportunity came Saturday with a deadline for local offices of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to apply for up to $50,000 in additional funds for Adult Protective Services units.
Offices in Allen, Auglaize, Putnam, Hardin, Hancock and Van Wert counties said they met, or expected to meet, the deadline.
That money, and increased funding in the latest state budget, comes at a critical time for these local agencies. The funds are intended to help them face new demands from Columbus to improve elder abuse invesgitations, mandates that could overwhelm them if the money vanishes.
While $50,000 doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s a windfall compared to past allocations. Ohio has doled out just $500,000 a year for Adult Protective Services in the last 12 years. That has meant, at the county end, a measly $2,000 to $5,000 a year in state support.
“There’ve been years that we’ve only had $1,500 in our budget, and now, all of a sudden, ‘Here you go!’” said Michelle Bowen, administrator for Auglaize County JFS. “Whether all this money will be put into the budget in years to come is the big question.”
The $50,000 grants came with the 2014 Mid-Biennium Review of Ohio’s two-year budget. Lawmakers, recognizing a need to improve Ohio’s response to elder abuse, approved $10 million to help county agencies strengthen their elder abuse investigative infrastructure.
The money comes with strings attached. Counties must take certain steps, like creating interdisciplinary teams with other agencies to coordinate their response to elder abuse allegations. These “I-teams” are to include law enforcement, Crime Victim Services, local councils and Area Agencies on Aging, and longterm care ombudsmen, who advocate for the elderly in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
Marilyn Horstman, deputy director of social services for Allen County JFS, said her office has been engaging in this kind of collaboration for years, but it’s never been formalized.
“What might be available [in] one county has not been available in another, and they [ODJFS] are saying that they want more consistency across counties by the end of the year,” she said.
Horstman said she met with members of her I-team in late October, and will be meeting monthly. Other counties have found it hard to get their I-teams together to agree to the terms of their collaboration, another requirement in the grant process.
“A lot of our partners aren’t interested in a partnership,” said Sandy Honigford, deputy director of Van Wert County JFS. Her office fielded a total of 41 calls in the last fiscal year and opened seven cases. “There’s a feeling that there’s not a huge need. It’s really just a learning process right now to get that team together and establish what’s out there.”
A silent epidemic
In the last fiscal year, Ohio’s Adult Protective Services received 16,856 reports of abuse, neglect and exploitation of the elderly. Elder care advocates believe many more instances go unreported.
While estimates vary, there’s little doubt that reports of elder abuse will increase. That’s because Ohio’s population is getting more elderly, and, by extension, more vulnerable. In 2010, 20.5 percent of the state’s population was 60 years old or older, but researchers at Miami University of Ohio predict that percentage to rise to 28.6 percent, and more than 30 percent in Auglaize, Mercer, Van Wert and Putnam counties.
Already on the increase is financial exploitation of the elderly, fueled by cyber scammers and the not-so-distant economic crisis of 2008. In April, in Lima, a couple were sent to prison for imprisoning 66-year-old Carol Wilcox, beating her, starving her and stealing her Social Security benefits.
“My maternal grandmother got a phone call from someone purporting to be her grandson, he was in a car accident, he needed $3,000, could she just wire it over,” said state Rep. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea, who got the state in 2012 to designate June 15 as Elder Abuse Awareness Day. “It isn’t just grandma being abused by someone in a nursing home. The criminal arena has changed.”
Dovilla has been trying since 2012 to get legislation passed that would amend Ohio’s elder abuse statutes to include financial exploitation. It would also require financial advisers and banks to report instances of abuse. The current version, House Bill 24, passed the House of Representatives and is now being reviewed in the Senate.
“One of the big concerns is, will it be an unfunded mandate?” said Dovilla, who’s met with the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association and the County Commissioners Association. “Are there anough human and financial resources to go around to be able to monitor these additional activities?”
He said he pledged to them that “the dollars will be there, to the extent that I can provide them.”
Lawmakers included $2.64 million per year for adult protective services for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. Each of Ohio’s 88 counties will get $30,000 per year. With that money, counties are expected to become more responsive, with round-the-clock hot lines and participation in a new, statewide database of elder abuse claims.
Allen, Hancock and Mercer counties have already made changes, recently hiring, for the first time, full-time, dedicated elder abuse investigators. In 2013, The Center for Community Solutions found that 39 counties lacked such a position.
Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit research group, reported in a 2014 APS budget analysis that counties with full-time, dedicated APS workers reported higher incidence of mistreatment than counties with part-time staff, or staff that also does child protective work.
“We’re very hopeful, because there has been an investment in protective services,” said Wendy Patton, who authored the report. But she said much more is needed. She recommends at least $20 million annually for Adult Protective Services. That’s 10 times what the new budget has allocated.
“Many of the counties are going to be swamped by increased reporting,” she said.
Allen County JFS deputy director Marilyn Horstman agreed.
“I’ve been saying this for years,” she said, of the nation’s aging baby boomers. “I don’t think this county is ready for what’s going to happen.”
“With no funding, the counties have very little they can do.”
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or Twitter, @lima_eddings.