PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — One year ago, the detectives at the Santa Monica Police Department welcomed Polina Havens into their criminal investigations office.
Havens does not wear a badge, and she only spends time at the Public Safety Facility on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but in the last year she’s taken on 151 non-criminal cases which would have otherwise fallen on the backs of three or four detectives.
Havens’ bears the title Critical Response Liaison, a part-time position funded by WISE & Healthy Aging and City Hall that is meant to help seniors who have been abused or neglected.
When the police department receives a complaint either from a neighbor of an elderly person or from Adult Protective Services, it’s Havens’ job to work with the alleged victim to get them food, care, socialization or whatever kind of help they need.
If police investigate a complaint but no crime has been committed, it’s hard for them to help the elderly even if they are living in unhealthy conditions, said Lt. Mike Beautz.
“Most of the time it’s not criminal, but there’s still a level of care needed because the person affected is physically incapacitated or going through stages of dementia,” Beautz explained. “Things happened that brought attention of their situation to the police still need to be addressed, but there is very little that we can do.”
Elder abuse is a difficult thing to identify and even harder to quantify.
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 an adult child who is caring for them, a professional nursing home or even a neighbor that steps in to help out.
Abuse comes in many forms, be it physical, financial or psychological.
An elder can also find themselves in a position that they can no longer care for themselves and have no other recourse, falling into a cycle of self-neglect.
“I would say what makes them vulnerable is their difficulty in meeting their activities of daily living, such as personal care, meal preparation, transportation, money management and medication management,” Havens said. “Once one becomes dependent on another person for those things, it opens them to some neglect and abuse.”
Approximately four years ago, the police department created a position for an elder abuse liaison whose job it was to follow up on elder abuse matters that didn’t reach the level of criminal charges, Beautz said.
When that person retired, the department was forced to give up the position in response to budget cuts.
After that, detectives would leave the matter to Adult Protective Services, an agency which intervenes on behalf of seniors but whose services focus on crisis intervention rather than ongoing care.
It was hard for the detectives to see a problem and not be in a position to solve it, Beautz said.
“It’s frustrating to walk away and not be able to help,” Beautz said. “These guys are problem-solvers. … We were still there and we wanted to solve the problem.”
That’s where Havens comes in.
Havens spends an average of three months following up with each of her clients to make sure that they get the help that they need.
“Ultimately, the goal is to keep older adults living in the community as long as possible and as safely as possible,” said Michelle Quiroga-Diaz, the director of In-Home Services at WISE & Healthy Aging.
Before taking up her new role, Havens worked at WISE & Healthy Aging for several years in the Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, an arm of WISE & Healthy Aging that sends volunteer ombudsmen into nursing homes and assisted living facilities to make sure the elderly are well-cared for.
It prepared her for her new job, Havens said.
“It was very beneficial. I have a good understanding of the long-term care system, including discharge from hospitals and how the long-term care system operates once seniors are within a facility, and what it looks like in their first three months or so,” Havens said. “I know how to help the senior navigate the system as well.”
Now that Havens has over 150 cases under her belt, she hopes to increase the number of cases where the victims welcome the aid.
Only half of the clients were receptive, which Havens hopes will increase as word about the position gets out.
“They may not see a need to change their situation,” Quiroga-Diaz said. “There may be a lifelong pattern of self-neglecting characteristics, and with that comes years of being able to adapt and cope on their own. They have found it to be effective for them.”
The team hopes that other agencies will look at the partnership between the SMPD and nonprofit and find it to be effective for them as well.
“It’s an innovative model of care management services in that it’s a unique partnership with the police jurisdiction,” Quiroga-Diaz said. “It could be replicated other places.”