We get very few visitors back here in the swamp, so I was curious when the doorbell rang, and I opened the door to a middle-aged lady, alone on my stoop. She didn’t greet me so much as gush at me. She said she was with a community group that offered services to the elderly and she’d like to meet Hal. I mostly accepted her overture, since the social malady du jour, that year, was the elderly. I asked to see identification, which revealed that she was from the department of social services, not the community. I was alarmed that she misled me, so I balked when she tried to enter. She changed her story and her tone. A complaint had been filed against me for elder-abuse. That got my attention! I let her in. Hal was in his room watching TV, but when I called him, he came scurrying out. She greeted him with the condescending baby-talk tone so often used with the elderly. They chatted. She was friendly, though disingenuous. She misrepresented her visit to him, as she had with me. I explained the real reason she was there and alarmed, he invited her to sit with him in the living room. She dismissed me, saying that she wished to speak privately with Hal. I wasn’t about to leave this stranger unattended with him, but I needed time to think, so I stood out of sight to listen, unnerved and in shock.
I knew who did it. I knew it was my rabbit club’s secretary who I had just voted to remove because of improprieties. This was someone with whom I was very friendly, and she had decided to get personal and retaliate for her removal by filing a complaint against me for elder-abuse. She had done it to people before and had bragged about it. I stood quietly and listened to the adult services worker interview Hal, and I began to come apart at the seams.
She told Hal that she was there to make sure he was okay, and he told her that he was appreciative. She asked him how he liked it in our home and he told her that he loved it. She asked him what he did there, and he told her about gardening, reading, writing, walking, and practicing his music. She asked if anyone had ever slapped him, hit him, or pushed him. He was shocked, and he stammered, “Of course not!” She asked him why someone who was not his relative would take him in, and he told her, with some surprise, “Because they love me!”
Amenities over, she told him that to make sure he was okay, she would need his social security number, his bank statements, and his tax return. Ever trusting, he began to rattle off his social security number. I snapped to my senses and burst into the room to interrupt him. “That’s enough,” I said. “That is completely inappropriate. It is time for you to leave.” She threatened to call the police, but I held my ground.
At this point, she handed me an official-looking piece of paper that forever changed my politics and my peace of mind. Included in this document were “General Legal Principles:”
A. No interview should be conducted, in the presence of the perpetrator, whenever possible. With no investigation yet underway, they had labeled me a “perpetrator,” (not alleged or accused perpetrator) thus setting the tone and direction of the investigation and implying permission to impugn my constitutional rights. What about my right to be considered innocent until I am proven guilty?
C. The identity of an Adult Protective Services (APS) referral source is confidential unless DHS/APS is given written consent of that person or by judicial process. I am supposed to have a right to confront my accuser. Although this was not yet a criminal proceeding, I was being accused of a criminal act.
D. If admission to an adult’s dwelling is denied, the county DHS may seek the assistance of law enforcement to secure a search warrant…” Evidently, officials may lie their way into my home and my home can be invaded by my government without just cause. We would never accept this from law-enforcement, but a well-intentioned social worker is not accountable?
The adult services worker misrepresented herself to gain access to my home, lied to Hal about why she was there, and manipulated him to get private documents to which she had no right, by using against him the same tactics from which she is sworn to protect him: she attempted to take advantage of him because he was old.
For most of my adult life I have been a mandated reporter, so I know all the arguments that attempt to defend the actions of the DSS, and I mostly agree with them. I understand the need to protect the elderly; the whole reason we asked Hal to live with us was to protect him. I understand the need to protect the complainant, too, so witnesses aren’t afraid to come forth. I understand that where abuse is taking place, entry may be denied to those seeking to protect, and that authorities may need to press the issue, and I understand that workers with the department of social services are regularly lied to and daily see deplorable living conditions for elderly people who really do need help. I believe that elder-abuse is a real and present problem in our culture and that we all have a responsibility to prevent it. Believe me, living with an elderly man for eight years and experiencing his growing vulnerability and naivety, has only strengthened my conviction that the elderly are at risk. But the ends do not justify the means if the means include compromising citizens’ constitutional rights by cherry- picking which rights are important.
My household was immediately plunged into anxiety and anguish on that day. Jeff worked for the state; even though he was not mentioned in any of the accusations, what would be the implications for his job? How would this change our plans to care for Hal until his death? Could we dare continue with this living arrangement, regardless of the outcome? What if they took him away? What would happen to him? Did it leave us vulnerable? What were we risking? Would we be forced to spend our retirement funds paying to defend ourselves? Would our privacy be invaded if this became public knowledge? Would we be the source of hateful gossip? I felt frantic and disgruntled. No good deed goes unpunished.
The specific accusations were twofold: 1) I was stealing Hal’s money and 2) Hal had not been seen for quite some time. Hal took it upon himself to write a six-page (longhand) response to the accusations, in which he outlined his resentment that not one specific example of abuse had been provided. He chastised social services for ageism, stating that his mind was clear at 90 and had he been 50, they would not have questioned his judgement. He outlined and enumerated all the ways his life had been enriched by living with us, and he was very specific. He responded to the first accusation by stating, “It would not be possible for Nancy to abuse me financially, because she would be welcome to any or all of my money, any time she wanted it.” To the second accusation, he requested that the agency contact his church, his music group, his friends, and even his barber and grocer, all of whom saw him on a weekly basis. He requested a written account of the details of the alleged abuse and the evidence that had accrued. He demanded a written apology for misleading him and treating him like a child.
The worst part of this debacle was Hal’s anguish that my good deed was being called into question. Hal knew full well that once someone is accused of something deplorable, reputation and peace of mind are forever tainted. Hal had unerring trust in Jeff and me and was offended and horrified that our honor was being called into question, because of him. He felt guilt and anguish, and he was afraid for himself; afraid he would lose his home. Helping people who do not need or want help is what my son calls “unintended consequences.” In this case, one unintended consequence of the good intentions of lawmakers was that by passing a law to help people like Hal, they had instead hurt him.
I took immediate action. I consulted an attorney. I sent a letter to social services, detailing the information about the person who I knew had made the false complaint. I made a call to a long-ago former colleague at DSS, to unofficially confirm the name of the complainant (thus, by the way, stepping on her legal rights). Meanwhile, I provided references including the mayor, two priests, a deacon, a professor, and Hal’s own doctor.
The principles I saw in the “legal principles” section of the papers I was handed, showed me that my government can invade my domicile on a whim. This flies in the face of my rights as a citizen of the United States of America. That middle-level bureaucrats have the authority to supersede the fundamentals of our democratic society, the right to due process of law (the principle that the government must respect all the legal rights that are owed a person according to the law of the land, instead of respecting merely some or most of those legal rights) and the right to confront our accusers, is unconscionable. Citizens would never stand for the police invading their homes, but it is somehow acceptable for social workers to lie and misrepresent themselves to gain access, because they are seen as angels of mercy. Lawmakers and citizens alike, should think very hard about the unintended consequences of proposed laws. Laws that protect some innocent citizens by persecuting other innocent citizens are unacceptable. Intentions do not justify means.
Eventually, we received a letter saying the investigation was completed, the findings were without merit, and the case was closed. It would be permanently filed with the State of Michigan, even though the complaint had been found to be without merit. (Please let this sink in: there is a file in my state government, forever, labeling me an accused perpetrator of elder-abuse, even though I did absolutely nothing wrong and was, in fact, a victim myself.) The case worker called to say that she didn’t need a home visit and could finish up over the phone. Not on your life. I would rather have met with my accuser, but since she was hiding behind the skirts of the county legal system, I would have to settle for their front man. An exit interview was scheduled. To ameliorate my sense of powerlessness and assuage my indignation, I lectured her for half an hour about the Constitution of the United States of America and how she had violated my rights as a citizen. I imagine she just thought I was an ignorant kook, but when I told her how she had harmed this little old man who had never harmed anybody, I got to her a bit. I had no illusion that my preaching would change her mind about anything, but it is healing to speak your mind, and my conviction is that each of us has a responsibility to speak out against injustice. I was pleased that I had not allowed her to write us off, and I enjoyed even the most meager sense of revenge that came from torture by lecture. Hal knew that she had not bothered to read most of his hand-written, single-spaced, six-page letter, so he asked to read it to her. She tried half a dozen ways to weasel out of it, but he held firm, and I eventually told her she at least owed him that. It took nearly an hour as the old university professor read aloud every paragraph and engaged her in conversation all along the way. He insisted on an apology. It did my heart good.
My perpetrator experienced no negative consequences for her frivolous and reprehensible deed. She did however, create devastating consequences for everyone in my household, exactly as she intended. My accuser impacted me, Hal, my family, my local government, and persons in actual need. Officials should err on the side of the alleged victim to ensure safety without stepping on a citizen’s constitutional rights. Charges found to have no merit, should be immediately expunged. That troublemaker should not be protected under a curtain of legislative obscurity, because it opens the door to witch hunts in whatever areas have captured the public’s fancy, important or not. Our well-intentioned fervor to protect the innocent, should not implicitly condone irresponsible or malicious accusations without accountability. If the charges are found to be vindictive, the whistleblower should be punished.
Over the years, as Hal’s mind began to fail, he forgot about that miserable episode in our lives together. That was a blessing for him, because it was still haunting me last summer, when a bad-guy entered my home uninvited and unwelcome and stole from me. He stole my mother’s wedding ring, Hal’s mother’s silver flatware, a pot full of coins, and nearly all my jewelry. The loss of things that were precious and irreplaceable was unsettling and upsetting, but I wasn’t shocked. I’d been through it before, when the consequences were far more devastating. The shock occurred the first time, when my feelings of security in my sanctuary were forever compromised, and I experienced that sacrilege as utter powerlessness, because the first time it wasn’t the bad-guys who did it; it was the good-guys.