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Headshot of author Kendra KuehnCollaborating with Law Enforcement: Specialized Units and Multidisciplinary Teams

by Kendra Kuehn, MSW, National Adult Protective Services Association

Law enforcement and adult protective services (APS) relationships can be a challenging area for many programs. In addition to differing professional perspectives, investigations and interventions are impacted by the individual perspectives of staff and clients. In a Virginia based study, Shelly Jackson and Thomas Hafemeister found that most of the older adult APS clients did not want law enforcement involvement. Most of the clients interviewed mentioned concern for the perpetrator and belief that treatment outcomes for the perpetrator would be better outside of the criminal justice system. Fear and distrust of law enforcement was also mentioned. In Generations Today, Vivianne Mbaku highlights the impact of historical inequalities in policing and its impact on minority elder abuse victims in particular and the National Center on Elder Abuse notes that African American elders may be reluctant to seek institutional help. However, all the authors highlight the importance of thoughtful collaboration and discussion to best serve clients. These discussions are going on in the US and internationally.

Specialization in Missouri

Missouri Adult Protective Services has created a Special Investigations Unit (SIU) for APS cases that involve criminal matters to allow for a more thorough investigation as well as improved referrals for prosecution. APS now has two units: Protective Services and Special Investigations. While all accepted reports go to the Protective Services Unit (PSU) first, those with potential criminal allegations are also referred to the SIU. This allows the PSU to continue to focus on interventions and services while the SIU focuses on the investigative aspects. SIU investigators are also tasked with communicating with the appropriate law enforcement agency on collaboration and which agency will take the investigative lead.

Many of the SIU investigators are former and seasoned law enforcement professionals. The background has helped give the units a multifaceted view of the cases. Each of Missouri’s five regions has a lead investigator who supervises the investigators as well as doing outreach to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors within their region. APS Section Director Tim Jackson noted that the investigators’ experience and relationships with law enforcement helps build bridges. They are able to talk the “language” where APS social workers may have been unable to get in the door previously.

As in any state, collaborations can look different from rural to urban areas. In Missouri they have seen that the APS SIU investigators often lead and then refer the case, while in areas with larger law enforcement agencies and specialized units, APS is more of a resource than the lead. Jackson notes “from our perspective, we’re simply trying to promote partnerships” and they take on the role best supporting the partnership.

Resources on Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Research published in The Gerontologist shows that collaborative responses with law enforcement enhance effectiveness and best utilize limited resources. From programs like Missouri APS to federal resource centers, there is a wealth of information and training available on how APS can ensure that collaboration best meets caseworker and client needs. At the heart of collaboration, are Multidisciplinary Teams (MDT).

At the Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Initiative, the Multidisciplinary Team Technical Assistance Center (MDT TAC) provides tools, resource materials, a listserv, and consultations to case review teams. The MDT Guide and Toolkit is a useful resource not only for building an MDT but also around collaboration strategies and assessing community needs. APS and law enforcement can use these tools to understand and address barriers in their communities. Areas to look at may be institutional barriers, historical and current racial injustices, agency perceptions of the other agency, community perceptions of APS and law enforcement, and what the priority needs are for the community.

In addition to coordinating Enhanced Multi-Disciplinary Teams (E-MDTs) in each of New York City’s boroughs, Weill-Cornell Medicine’s New York City Elder Abuse Center (NYCEAC) hosts the National Elder Abuse MDT Training and Technical Assistance Center (funded by the US Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime). Established in April 2020, the Center provides training, technical assistance, and trauma informed resources for Office of Victims of Crime funded MDTs. The center also works with OVC-funded tribal MDTs, providing culturally informed support. NYCEAC also offers support to interested teams building from its experience in New York City including enhancement via a geropsychiatrist, geriatrician, forensic accountant, and civil attorney and facilitating more peer support among E-MDT coordinators.

Collaborations involving tribal elders, law enforcement, or other agencies may add additional cultural and jurisdictional dimensions. States have no authority over tribal government unless expressly authorized by Congress or in a government-to-government arrangement with the states (US Bureau of Indian Affairs). This is also the case in elder justice and related crimes. The National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative (NIEJI) (funded by the US Administration for Community Living) provides materials and technical assistance for tribes including a toolkit on creating a tribal MDTs or Tribal Elder Protection Teams. Both tribal APS and law enforcement should be involved in these teams. The final section on culturally sensitive resources is of particular use for non-tribal programs in approaching working with tribes and members.

The National Resource Center for Reaching Victims (funded by the US Department of Justice’s Office of Victims of Crime) supports creation of victim services that are accessible, culturally relevant, and trauma informed. Resources such as the “Increasing Access to Healing Services and Just Outcomes for Older African American Crime Survivors” toolkit or webinars on applying a racial equity lens to collaborations can help foster and inform collaborations that break down barriers and meet community needs.

Bonus: Collaborations Abroad

Elder abuse programs in the United States are not the only ones working hard to build collaborations. Singapore’s Adult Protective Service program was set up in 2015 and the Vulnerable Adults Act passed in 2018. In 2020, the majority of clients were over age 65. Unlike the US, physical abuse was the most common investigation. Prior to joining the National Elder Abuse MDT Training and Technical Assistance Center, Grace Cheong was a part of the development of Singapore’s APS and the Vulnerable Adults Act. She noted that there is generally a higher trust in the law enforcement process in Singapore which influences collaboration with APS. A cultural challenge has been that abuse within family relationships is generally seen as a civil area, a struggle often found in the US as well. In general, Cheong would like to see systems move towards a stronger hybrid model that leverages both civil and criminal intervention, and community involvement. Her call for “building a broader eco-system that supports survivors” and includes accountability echoes the importance of collaboration no matter where APS works.

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