Thursday, February 24, 2011

Adult Protective Services Ducks and Covers

Tulare County's Health and Human Services Agency deals with many issues that require privacy and sensitivity. The need to protect client confidentiality does not absolve the agency from answering to the public.

Given the responses by the agency to questions directed by the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register to Adult Protective Services regarding recent operations, the agency must do better. Much better.

The newspapers published a story on local response to elder abuse, and some analysts predict that the number of senior citizens will double by the year 2040.

Local and national observers agree that elder abuse is a serious and growing problem. It often goes underreported or undetected, because of many factors — fear of reprisal from victims, lack of training in recognizing abuse, the difficulty of prosecution, among others.

Adult Protective Services is the county agency with the responsibility of providing relief to victims of elder abuse.

When a reporter from the Times-Delta asked the agency why it had not helped a particular victim of elder abuse, the agency declined to answer.

In fact, representatives of the Health and Human Services Agency refused to take direct questions. It asked that those questions be e-mailed to the agency.
Then an HHSA spokeswoman delivered a canned response that failed to answer any questions about APS response to the victim of elder abuse.
This is unacceptable.

It would not be tolerated from any other county agency. Imagine if the sheriff's department refused to explain its response to an emergency, or if public works declined to report on how it responded to a washed-out bridge.

The public should not tolerate this kind of evasion from Adult Protective Services, or any other division of the Health and Human Services Agency.
We understand the constraints on what can be reported about victims of crime and others served by social services.

We also practice those constraints. In some cases, they are required by law, and we accept those legal restraints.

Revealing the response from the agency to this case was not an attempt to betray confidences, expose victims or jeopardize an investigation. The agency could have explained its response without compromising anyone's confidentiality. We are left to conclude that in this case, the agency did not do its job.

Citizens and taxpayers deserve to know how their government functions, and they are entitled to decide if that response is adequate and appropriate. The effectiveness of agencies such as Adult Protective Services cannot be judged without that information.

Failure to provide it gives the agency a free hand without public oversight.
The public is left to conclude that this is how the agency operates: It will function as it wills without explanation or accountability. That is unacceptable.

Tulare County supervisors have an opportunity to bring accountability to the government they were elected to oversee. We urge supervisors to demand an accounting and insist on more transparency from the Health and Human Services Agency.

That begins with agency director John Davis, who ought to have started his own investigation into how Adult Protective Services was permitted to stonewall basic questions about its operations.

Government does the work of the people, who have a right to know what their government is doing. In this case, Adult Protective Services utterly failed to provide assurance it is doing the public's work. It is high time APS answered to the public it serves.


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