On May 26, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a proclamation designating the month of June as "Adult Abuse Awareness Month" - an initiative designed to draw attention to the physical and psychological mistreatment some elderly men and women experience in the vulnerable later stages of life.
Good intentions aside, the trouble with that new program - at least for Taos County - is an apparent lack of effective resources for an elder or concerned family member to turn to if abuse is occurring.
Elder abuse is a problem that affects approximately 1 in 10 Americans older than 60, according to the National Council on Aging. Examples of maltreatment range from physical, sexual or emotional abuse, willful deprivation, confinement or financial exploitation. The majority of those incidents take place in private residences or in nursing homes - where, according to a study by the National Ombudsman Reporting System, 188,599 reports of abuse were filed in 2014 throughout the United States.
It is a major problem here in New Mexico, as well, according to messaging posted on the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department website, and addressing it is a service the organization advertises as a priority. "Adult abuse, neglect, and exploitation are under-reported, yet can have severe or even deadly consequences," reads a section of the department's website.
Yet, at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department in Taos - which processes many adult abuse cases for the county - there is just one desk for one investigator designated as the sole specialist for elder abuse in a county of more than 30,000 residents.
During June - New Mexico's inaugural month of elder abuse "awareness" - that desk was vacated.
According to information released by Adult Protective Services, the previous specialist "terminated their position." Plans to hire a replacement and additional information regarding the vacancy have not yet been released by the office.
In all, five Adult Protective Services offices serve various regions throughout the state, all listed on the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department website. Once a user finds the relevant page for the service, they are met with a maze of text, phone numbers and corresponding service offices. Finding the right line is cumbersome, and several counties are assigned to each phone line. The response from the people who pick up on the other end is at best befuddled and at worst bothered. Two central intake lines seek to expedite the process, but neither will place a caller in contact with an actual person, that is, until they have waded through a delayed recording that runs down a set of unrelated services and their extensions before requesting the user to "press 1" to file a report.
Several calls submitted to Adult Protective Services regarding the organization's services, statistics on adult abuse and information that might help elders in distress were not answered before press time.
Punctuating the challenges in going directly through the agency itself, many people in Taos County seem to be turning to other local service providers, like Community Against Violence, to help them through the process.
Vicki Magiera serves as a transitional housing advocate for local nonprofit CAV, but also pulls double duty by handling many calls regarding adult abuse, which she then refers to CYFD in the hope they will be resolved.
"When we come up against something like adult abuse," she said, "we will create a report and file it with CYFD, much like you would report child abuse or neglect."
Magiera said that a CYFD case worker then classifies the case depending on its "severity." If an elder's life is in danger, Magiera said, their case goes to the top of the list. The response time might be less than 24 hours. If a case has to do with, for example, financial exploitation, which might require further investigation, the process might take "up to a week."
The response to a case usually involves a case worker reaching out to a family. Then a criminal investigation may open up, involving law enforcement. Since elder abuse surfaced as a major problem in nursing homes in the United States in the 1970s, several states have created new laws and penalties, many of them felonies, to assist in prosecuting the cases.
As for the effectiveness of the current system in Taos County in getting those cases from investigation to actual legal resolutions - without the presence of a specialist equipped to handle those cases - Adult Protective Services was unavailable to comment.