As Calif. Budget Shrinks, Services For Elderly Slip

Advocates for the elderly in California say recent budget cuts are dramatically affecting the ability of social service programs to keep up with demand. This comes as the state's elderly population — and the incidents of elder abuse — are exploding.

"My guess is that there are a lot of counties in California where they are really feeling overwhelmed and are experiencing great trepidation about what's going to happen in the next four to five years as the number of seniors and, therefore, the number of abuse cases, grows enormously," says Gary Passmore of the Congress of California Seniors.

One case in point is Contra Costa County, north of San Francisco. In January, John Cottrell, head of the county's Aging and Adult Services program, laid off two-thirds of his staff who investigate abuse complaints of elderly and dependent adults.

Wendy Beatty, one of the remaining six caseworkers, says she used to spend much of her time on self-neglect cases — those involving people who aren't caring for themselves. But now, she says the agency can take on "only the most really egregious" cases.

As an example, she points to the case of a mother and daughter with mental health problems who were living in a home so jampacked with boxes and refuse that it was nearly impassable inside. The mentally disabled adult daughter weighed less than 90 pounds, even though she's 5-feet-7.

"She was malnourished and ... [had] horrible foot ulcers. This young lady had not been out of the house for what family told me later was probably close to 10 years," Beatty says.

Beatty brought in a public health nurse and mental health worker from her department. The daughter received treatment. But Beatty says the specialists who assisted her have been laid off — and she is now expected to evaluate many cases by phone.

Contra Costa County is now turning over virtually all of its self-neglect cases to some other agency — often, the police. The situation is so severe that the county grand jury recently concluded that Adult Protective Services no longer has the resources to carry out its legal mandate to investigate physical and financial abuse complaints.

Cottrell disputes that, but concedes that the agency's investigations are not as thorough as they used to be. Meanwhile, he's bracing for the possibility of even fewer resources as the state scrambles to address the budget crisis.

"I've not been through this kind of a decline with nothing in sight for a bottom yet. We're in free fall. ... What are you going to cut now?" Cottrell says.

National studies estimate that just 1 in 5 elder abuse cases is reported. But complaints are on the rise, especially those involving financial abuse. When asked if he expects some vulnerable seniors to fall through the cracks, Cottrell sighs — and says probably more than some.

Tara Siler reports for member station KQED in San Francisco.

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