APS 101: What to Expect When Working with Adult Protective Services

by Andrew Capehart, Assistant Director - NAPSA

When someone speaks of “adult protective services” or “APS” they are typically referring to a state or county government agency that investigates reports abuse, neglect and exploitation of seniors and adults with a disability and provides protection to the victims. APS may vary in composition, population served and geographical location depending on the state. In 2012, NAPSA counted at least 3,338 APS professionals working across the US (34 states responding) with some states having as many as 693 employees while others as few as five.

Anyone can make a report to APS on themselves or another person and APS contact information for every state can be found at www.napsa-now.org/report. Nearly all states require that certain professionals, often include doctors, law enforcement officers, clergy and even financial services professionals, report concerns about abuse, neglect or exploitation of older adults and adults with disabilities.

When a report is made to APS, APS “screens” the content to ensure that it meets the state’s legal criteria to begin an investigation. A “flow chart” developed by NAPSA and the NCEA is available here to chart the typical progress of an APS system.

Once a report is assessed by APS, an investigator (typically a social worker) begins working on the “case.” The investigator completes face-to-face visits, collects collateral information from those involved and gathers medical or financial records and documents these activities. All work done by an APS professional and the contents of a case are protected information. APS professionals cannot disclose the contents of a case to anyone, even to the reporter.

In most circumstances, APS will conduct a comprehensive evaluation of a victim’s circumstances and health along with any allegations of abuse, neglect or exploitation. The evaluation of their mental capacity, which often include formal assessments by psychologists, etc., will be used to determine whether the victim is capable of making their own decisions. APS workers follow a code of ethics, the guiding value of which is that “every action taken by APS must balance the duty to protect the safety of the vulnerable adult with the adult’s right to self-determination,” is taken very seriously.

Interventions by APS can be basically classified into voluntary, such as referral to community resources, and involuntary. It is an APS professional’s duty to attempt voluntary options before resorting to involuntary ones. In most cases, involuntary interventions may not be an option based on the worker’s evaluation of mental capacity. Involuntary interventions require authorization by a court.

APS, the victim and those closest to the victim do not always agree on a desired outcome. A case can result in no intervention being made, even when the allegations are found to be true, based on the victim’s wishes to take no action. These are often the most difficult cases for APS to handle. Many of these victims have cases that span several years with multiple reports being made by multiple people. Many programs utilize a multidisciplinary team to help guide decisions on these cases.

As a former APS investigator, I can say with certainty that it is a very difficult job. In 10+ years as a practitioner, I had to take direct action in cases where victims begged me not to because the perpetrator was a loved one. Conversely, I’ve had to walk away from horrible abuse when a victim wanted no action taken and was capable of making that decision.

If you ever work with an APS professional, please, thank them for what they do, and let them know you have a bit of insight into how difficult their job is. Trust me -  it will make their day.