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Pennsylvania lawmakers question secrecy around how abuse or neglect of older adults is investigated

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on July 26, 2023.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers want Gov. Josh Shapiro's Department of Aging to disclose more about the shortcomings it finds when it evaluates whether county-level agencies are properly investigating complaints about the abuse or neglect of older adults.

The effort comes as Republican state lawmakers have pressed Shapiro’s administration to do more to investigate the deaths of older adults who are the subject of an abuse or neglect complaint after Pennsylvania recorded a steep increase in such deaths.

Rep. Louis Schmitt, R-Blair, introduced legislation Wednesday requiring the department to publish the compliance status of each of the 52 county-level agencies that it's supposed to inspect annually, and to publish a report on the findings.

“The public needs to know. The public deserves to know. The public has a right to know,” Schmitt said in an interview. “You cannot hide if you’re going to conduct public business, especially public business that affects the health and safety and welfare of seniors in Pennsylvania.”

The department told lawmakers earlier this year that it had deemed seven of the agencies to be noncompliant. The year before that, 13 were noncompliant when lawmakers asked.

In a statement Thursday, the Department of Aging said it looked forward to working with Schmitt. The department said it expects to introduce a new performance evaluation process beginning in June and will post results on its website.

The department has recently declined requests by The Associated Press for two sets of documents: one in which the department outlines to county-level agencies the shortcomings it found and another in which the county-level agency must explain how it will fix those shortcomings. The department, under Shapiro's predecessor, former Gov. Tom Wolf, had provided such documents unredacted to the AP.

Those refusals come after a January evaluation of Philadelphia’s agency found that its protective services bureau had improperly handled 16 — or one-third — of 50 closed cases that were picked at random for the review.

The details of complaints, investigations and the identity of the person whose situation is in question are kept secret.

The Philadelphia Corporation For Aging declined to comment. A letter the department sent to the agency didn't describe the problems or how the agency planned to fix them.

Asked about the fate of the 16 adults, the department said none of their cases “required a referral to law enforcement or a report to the coroner’s office.”

The department also said it is taking steps to help the Philadelphia agency, including by encouraging the agency to seek out a broader pool of applicants for caseworkers and supervisory staff and expanding training.

The department has contracts with 52 county-level “area agencies for aging” — nicknamed triple As — across Pennsylvania to field and investigate abuse and neglect complaints and, ultimately, ensure the older adult is safe and connected to the appropriate social services. Some are county-run and some are privately run.

Sheri McQuown, a protective services specialist who left the Department of Aging last year after almost seven years, said there is no reason the department cannot publish the findings from its evaluations and the local agencies' corrective action plans.

“The public should know what they’re paying for, what they’re getting for their money, and older adults should know which triple As are effective and which are not,” McQuown said.

How the Philadelphia agency handles complaints has stoked repeated concerns. At one point, the state stepped in to handle investigations.

McQuown questioned whether the Department of Aging has the spine to hold the county-level agencies accountable. High numbers of deficiencies has long been the norm for Philadelphia and some other agencies, she said.

The county-level agencies do not always comply with state requirements that limit caseworkers’ caseloads, set deadlines to resolve cases and set timelines within which caseworkers must promptly see potential victims.

The agencies also decide which complaints to investigate, and state data has long shown disparities between the agencies in how often they deemed a complaint to be worthy of action.

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