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Training Conference Addresses Homelessness, Elderly Abuse

Aug. 26, 2005 – What do you do to put a roof over the head of a homeless person? What about suspected abuse of an elderly or disabled person? Who do you turn to?
The answers aren't easy. They involve more than one agency and aren't always readily clear. But after a week-long training conference at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort, positive solutions are on the horizon.
Michal Rhymer-Charles, Department of Human Services deputy commissioner, said at Thursday's training session, "Human Services can't do it all. We need to create a closed system, no gaps."
Representatives of agencies — including the Department of Justice, the Police Department, Roy L. Schneider Regional Medical Center, homes for the elderly in each district, the Housing Authority and other protective agencies — are meeting with the Senior Citizens Affairs Adult Protective Service (APS) in an effort to close some of those "gaps."
Thursday's session was led by two experts in the field, Pat Gilberto, former head of the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter College, and Robert O 'Connell, formerly with the U. S. Administration on Aging.
Gilberto got right to the matter at hand. He related a heartbreaking case in the states that took six months to get a woman into hospital care. The woman, a well-educated former historian, had taken to wandering the streets and eating out of dumpsters.
He told how her brother had approached six different agencies seeking help and how he was bandied about from one to the other over the six-month period. The brother had become depressed, himself, in trying to help, Gilberto said. He was sent from the Mental Health Department to the police and several other agencies.
Finally, the mayor of the town was contacted. After she stepped in, the woman was admitted to the local hospital … six months later.
Gilberto asked, "What happened? Where did the agencies go wrong?" The group at the training session decided it wasn't "malice," on anyone's part, but possibly "indifference." Gilberto said, "The community failed her." He said her brother could have been more consistent in his efforts, but the agencies needed to communicate with each other. "The reality of it is that no one agency can do it all," he said.
As if on cue, Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert stepped in to announce a new initiative to address just those concerns. Halbert said, "The governor has mandated by executive order a V.I. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Human Services is the lead agency and we are drafting a plan. It will be a 27-member agency."
The council will include private and public agencies and personnel to be appointed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, with Halbert as chairperson. The members include representatives from religious organizations; advocacy agencies; the departments of Health, Housing, Police and Labor; hospital officers from each district; the Chambers of Commerce; the attorney general's office; and two homeless, or formerly homeless, persons.
Gilberto said, "When I hear change is coming from the top, I know things will change."
Thursday's afternoon session focused on self-neglect. Taking a homeless person off the street can be a very tricky situation, Gilberto said. "It's very important for social workers to determine whether a person is capable of making a responsible decision."
He noted that a social worker and the client may have different goals. "Valuing freedom over safety is an individual's choice. Adults who have been determined by the court to have the capacity to make decisions can choose to live in harm's way," Gilberto said, "provided they do not do harm to others or commit a crime. Some people prefer living on the street."
Gilberto said after Thursday's session that he observed two dynamics working in the territory: "The [APS] is a veteran staff. They are very caring, but they have to work with so little funding." However, he said, "The territory is small enough that who knows who is really important." In the session, he suggested monthly meetings between the different agencies, "where credentials and egos are left at the door, and people just talk with each other as people."
During a Friday morning phone conversation, Halbert discussed a woman who had recently been living on the waterfront, pushing a supermarket cart with her belongings. "She appeared to be competent. She spoke clearly," Halbert said. "We can't pick her up off the street, if we can't prove she is ill and a danger to herself and other people."
The woman is a former school teacher, Halbert said. "The governor knows who she is, and he asked us to work with her. He was concerned." After social workers talked with her over a period of time, Halbert said, the woman has been admitted to a long-term care facility and is responding well to her new circumstances.
Halbert said Friday, "We need to coordinate with all agencies, and we need to set a policy with procedures clearly outlined – who has responsibility for what. Right now, it's sort of a hit or miss. Different agencies get involved, but there are no set guidelines."
She continued, "I am hopeful as soon as we get procedures in place, it will make the services more accessible. Communication between the agencies is one of the biggest problems we need to correct."
One of many problems surrounding the elderly or disabled is family members bringing a person to the hospital and essentially abandoning them. Michael Burton, Schneider Regional Medical Center spokesman, said the hospital isn't too overburdened because of a program in conjunction with the Seaview Nursing Home.
Other abuse issues include desertion by a caretaker, verbal or physical abuse, and unreasonable confinement. "Any abuse should be reported," Monifa Stout, HS public relations director, said. That's the way the agency is made aware of problems, and there are many.
Halbert said her department has to keep an eye on those caring for the disabled. "We have to check the foster homes people are providing, and make certain they are giving proper care. We saw a home recently where things were not being done property. These are the kinds of things we have to be careful about. And those giving support must know they can call somebody to help."
Any person found to be guilty of willful abuse under V. I. law can be fined up to $500 and imprisoned for a year. This includes abusing, neglecting, abandoning or exploiting an elderly or disabled person.
The training session wraps up Friday. To report a case of elder abuse, or abuse of the disabled, call Human Services Protective Services Investigation unit at 774-4673.
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