Polina Havens, the new critical response specialist for WISE & Healthy Aging, is at the heart of the expansion.
Havens has been working with detectives at the Santa Monica Police Department since 2011 to make sure that victims of elder abuse get connected to the services they need to stay in their homes long after emergency responders finish their work.
It’s something that neither the SMPD nor Adult Protective Services, a county-based program, can handle because it requires repeated contacts over the course of several months or years.
Both organizations are critical to caring for seniors who have been abused, but each specialize in immediate intervention, Havens said.
“(Adult Protective Services has) the ability to investigate and do short-term crisis intervention,” she said. “They don’t have the ability to do advocacy and long-term care.”
Havens spends two days a week at the Public Safety Facility. So far this fiscal year she’s helped triage 155 cases and taken on 49 seniors for continued case management, almost meeting her annual goal of 60 in the first seven months.
That’s double the target from the previous year, a sign both of the success of the program, as well as the need.
Her job involves assessing circumstances and then referring cases to a variety of outside groups, including the Long Term Care Ombudsman, based at WISE & Healthy Aging, the Department of Justice, Department of Public Health or Adult Protective Services.
When she takes on a case personally, Havens works with her clients to find out what they need and, as important, what kinds of services they’re willing to accept.
Elder abuse is a difficult thing to identify, harder to quantify and sometimes impossible for victims to admit is even taking place.
According to the National Center on Elder Abuse, between 1 million and 2 million Americans aged 65 and over have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated by someone they depend on.
That can be hired caregivers or, more commonly, adult children.
Havens spent two years helping a woman off and on who was being victimized by her adult daughter. Neighbors and even the building management called and complained about the situation, which ultimately escalated to physical abuse.
The daughter struck her mother over the head with a glass statue, requiring an emergency room visit. She later got a six-year prison sentence for that and other crimes, Havens said.
Without her daughter in the picture Havens’ client blossomed into a fully-independent adult.
“It was the most amazing transformation I’ve seen,” Havens said.
That may not be so easy for other adults who have difficulty cutting their children out of their lives. WISE & Healthy Aging provides counseling services through the Elder Abuse Survivor Therapy Project, which pairs abused adults with therapists and students getting their doctorate in psychology.
It became clear that therapy alone wasn’t enough, said Carol Meylan, director of In-Home Services with WISE & Healthy Aging.
“Survivors were dropping out after a few sessions because they were too focused on getting housing away from their abusers,” Meylan said.
It became an ongoing problem. Seniors were not getting the mental support they need because their lives had been thrown off-kilter as they tried to break away from their former caregivers, who had been the source of many of their problems.
That led to Havens’ new role as a case manager for those adults.
“Part of her job is to stabilize people,” Meylan said.
It’s a wider-reaching position, as the therapy group is open to people from all across the county and beyond, but one that can really help seniors who don’t know how to navigate the murky waters of social services.
It all helps serve the wider goal of keeping seniors in their homes, independent and safe, Meylan said.
Havens’ work through WISE & Healthy Aging and its various partnerships and programs is unique, and indicative of a wider push to use a team approach to solving the multi-faceted problem of elder abuse, said Andrew Capehart, assistant director of the National Adult Protective Services Association.
“Mainly, it comes out of having everyone at the table that knows a particular system,” Capehart said. “It means better service for clients, because elder abuse can’t be helped in a vacuum. There’s only so much a social worker can do in a situation where a person’s been victimized.”
Similarly, police have their hands tied after dispensing with the criminal aspect of a case. Adult Protective Services also specializes in crisis intervention, although that model varies widely in California, where the program is run by individual counties.
California is the only state to run its Adult Protective Services that way.
Together, all members of the team can create a safety net to make sure seniors don’t fall through the cracks.
Havens will begin her new role next week. She’s excited, if a little nervous.
“We will use a holistic approach,” Havens said. “We will make errors and we will correct them.”