Social Workers as Mandated Reporters, Part X: Protecting Vulnerable Adults – The Social Worker’s Role
by Kathryn Krase, Ph.D., JD, MSW
In March 2015, The New Social Worker magazine published the 9 th (and “final”) article that I promised to write in a series called Making the Tough Call: Social Workers as Mandated Reporters. The final article covered ethical, moral, and legal obligations of social workers to identify and report elder abuse and intimate partner violence. Unlike the articles earlier in the series, which centered on protecting children from maltreatment, the 9 th article focused on the responsibilities of social workers to respond to maltreatment of adults.
I quickly learned by reading the comments on the article through social media that I neglected to make clear the systems available, and still needed, to protect ALL vulnerable adults. As a professional, I pride myself on ever improving my practice. Therefore, I offer this article in response to the readership, and, as always, look forward to feedback.
Protecting Adults From Maltreatment
Social workers are mandated reporters of suspected child maltreatment in all 50 states. But what if your concerns for maltreatment are related to an adult? What should you do? What can you do?
When a person turns 18 years old, she or he generally attains legal standing as an adult. With this legal standing come many rights and privileges, as well as responsibilities. Adults can enter into legally binding contracts. Adults have the right to vote. Adults have the right to consent to all of their own medical procedures. Adults have the right to take out loans and open bank accounts. Adults are also subject to all potential criminal penalties.
When adults have impairments and are unable to take care of themselves, they may lose some of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities afforded to other adults. In some cases, formal legal avenues will be used to declare the adult “incompetent” and assign another adult with the responsibilities to care and manage her/his affairs. Adults deemed incompetent may live with family members, or other adults, sanctioned by a court with the responsibility to care for them. Other adults deemed incompetent may live in group settings, or in other institutions, often run by private organizations, under the authority of state governments.
Adults without impairment generally have the right to protect themselves from maltreatment, and call upon services like the police or courts to enforce this right. Because adults with impairments might not be able to assert the right to protect themselves, all states have systems designed to step in and protect vulnerable adults.
The definition of “vulnerable adult” may include older adults, but vulnerable adults are not simply defined by their age. “Vulnerable adults” also include those who might be targets of maltreatment because of their developmental, cognitive, mental, or physical disabilities.
In Alaska, a “vulnerable adult” is defined as a: “person 18 years of age or older who, because of incapacity, mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, advanced age, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, fraud, confinement, or disappearance, is unable to meet the person’s own needs or to seek help without assistance.” Definitions of “vulnerable adults” vary from state by state. Additionally, the terms “dependent adults,” “incapacitated persons,” “at-risk adults,” “disabled adult/persons,” and “endangered adults” are used to describe adults with similar status to “vulnerable adults.” Consult your state law for relevant terms.
Adult Protective Services
Research in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain has consistently found vulnerable adults to be at increased risk of physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and financial exploitation. In response to growing evidence to this effect, each state in the U.S. has a system through which anyone, including social workers, can report suspected maltreatment of vulnerable adults. Generally, these reports go through the state’s Adult Protective Services (APS). In some states, APS is associated with the government’s social service department. In other states, the role of APS is fulfilled by the criminal justice system. In some states, like New York, reports of suspected maltreatment of vulnerable adults living in institutionalized settings actually are reported through the same system as child maltreatment reports.
Some states require social workers, and certain other professionals, to make reports of suspected maltreatment when a vulnerable adult is the alleged victim. However, laws vary greatly across states.
If you believe that a vulnerable adult is in imminent physical danger, call the police. To find out what requirements there are for making reports in your state, consult this table. To find out how to report suspected maltreatment of a vulnerable adult in your state, check out the website of the National Adult Protective Services Association.
When in doubt about whether a vulnerable adult is being maltreated, and what you can do, contact your local APS office.
National Adult Protective Services Association. (2015). Get help. Retrieved from: http://www.napsa-now.org/get-help/help-in-your-area/
National Adult Protective Services Association. (2013). Nationwide survey of mandatory reporting requirements for elderly and/or vulnerable persons. Retrieved from: http://www.napsa-now.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Mandatory-Reporting-Chart-Updated-FINAL.pdf
Petersilia, J. (2001). Crime victims with developmental disabilities: A review essay. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 28 (5), 655-694.