This article is part of State of Health, a series examining integrated care and its potential to improve Michiganders' health. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.
According to the State of Michigan Elder Abuse Task Force, more than 73,000 older Michiganders have experienced abuse, neglect, and exploitation. The task force's website notes that elder abuse "shares many of the dynamics of domestic abuse," but even fewer community resources exist to address it.
"Domestic violence shelters all around usually serve younger clients and are not always handicap accessible," says Cynthia Farrell, program manager for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' (MDHHS) Supportive Adult Services Section. "... It’s like when domestic violence [awareness] first started back in the '70s. … We need to catch up."Cynthia Farrell.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has begun that process of catching up by establishing a pilot program that empowers elders and other vulnerable adults to escape their abusers. The pilot is based on the successful model of the Region 2 Area Agency on Aging (R2AAA)'s Safe Haven program, serving Jackson, Lenawee, and Hillsdale counties. The program primarily focuses on providing safe, temporary housing for people over 55 years old (or adults under 55 who are disabled) who are experiencing abuse, neglect, or exploitation.
Safe Haven served five people during its first planning year, 43 in the next, and is approaching 80 clients as it goes into its fourth year of operation. Unlike child protective services, which offers foster homes, adult protective services does not provide safe spaces for elders and disabled adults experiencing abuse or neglect. Safe Haven offers those people an option.
"If they are in a situation with family not treating them well, we get them out of that situation pretty quickly," says Kara Lorenz-Goings, R2AAA assistant director.
Angie Shepherd, elder-abuse victims specialist program manager for R2AAA Safe Haven, shares the story of one Safe Haven client who had been living with her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend. The daughter spent the woman's money — and even tried to run the woman down with a car. The boyfriend had guns and was dealing drugs.
This vulnerable woman needed a quick escape, and Safe Haven provided one. After eight weeks in temporary housing that Safe Haven arranged at a hotel, the woman moved into an apartment of her own. Because it was the first time she had ever lived on her own, Safe Haven connected her with the ongoing services she needed. Today she is successfully living by herself.
When Safe Haven first launched, the program housed clients in hotels until they could find new homes. This year, an agreement with a local landlord has opened up two apartments across the street from the R2AAA offices.
"This is really filling a gap and could be duplicated statewide, so people have a safe and secure place to go immediately and more intense case management," Lorenz-Goings says.
"We are hoping that other landlords in other parts of the state will be willing to do the same thing," she says. "This Safe Haven has been up and going well. We want to see it replicated. Our requests for proposals are going out for 2020-2021 for a county or an area to replicate this Safe Haven program."
Another one of Safe Haven’s many success stories is a 57-year-old disabled woman who had been living with a verbally abusive roommate who took financial advantage of her. The woman, who wishes to remain anonymous, connected with an R2AAA staffer who helped her find shelter in a motel for a few months through Safe Haven. Today she has an apartment of her own.
"(Safe Haven staff) cared enough to give me bus passes so I could look for an apartment and went out of their way to help," the woman says. "I can’t even have enough words to say thanks for everything Safe Haven has done. … I hope one day I can pay it forward."
Shepherd says this client has been in her new place for almost a year and is doing well on her own. Most clients typically spend six to eight weeks in temporary lodging, which has proven to be enough time for them to find safe, permanent housing. Shepherd notes that studies have shown domestic violence victims leave an abusive relationship seven times before they leave for good. But she says that when Safe Haven gets clients into new housing situations, "they feel safe and secure – and they maintain."
"It’s been wonderful to watch," she says. "They really do get back on their feet within the six- to eight-week timeframe."
Safe Haven takes part in a collaborative approach that brings together agencies from all three counties who are working to keep vulnerable adults safe. Together they support vulnerable adults with housing, mental health services, legal services, and access to a wide range of services catering to elders and adults with disabilities. When needs arise that Safe Haven can’t cover, R2AAA staff refer clients to agencies that can. For example, if a client needs help filing a personal protection order or regaining control of their finances, Safe Haven will arrange for them to get legal assistance.
"We’re all working together to make sure that everybody now has a safety net. We’ve even created pocket cards for first responders so they have a list of places that they can call for help," says Lorenz-Goings. "We can provide basic needs. If they don’t have access to their funds for food, clothing, transportation to medical appointments, or other things, we can provide that. If they do need a caregiver, we can provide that temporarily as well as personal care and housework."
Shepherd and Lorenz-Goings have found that most vulnerable adults want to live in a home of their own, and Safe Haven is one more mechanism to help make that happen. They say having a safe space to call home is a part of an integrated approach that fosters improved mental and physical health.
"If they are in an unsafe environment, it affects their mental health and physical health in a negative way. We offer that support and are able to get them back in the community and that improves their overall health," Lorenz-Goings says. "Who doesn’t want to live in community and be safe, secure, and have basic needs met?"
If you suspect a vulnerable adult or child is experiencing abuse, you can call 855-444-3911 any time of day or night.
A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media, communications manager for Our Kitchen Table, and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
Photos by Doug Coombe, except photo of Cynthia Farrell courtesy of MDHHS.