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Wolf official pressed over fate of 3 elderly in Philadelphia

February 16, 2022 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Aging refused to tell lawmakers Tuesday whether three older adults are alive or dead, after department employees raised an alarm over how a Philadelphia agency handled the three cases of abuse or neglect.

The Associated Press reported in September that those cases prompted Secretary of Aging Robert Torres to order improvements at the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, a nonprofit with a state contract to field and respond to calls about elder abuse and neglect in the city.

But neither Torres, the Department of Aging nor the Philadelphia agency has been willing to disclose any details about those cases, including whether the three people lived or died. The department has heavily redacted internal emails and letters that refer to the matter.

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On Tuesday, Torres told lawmakers he had not discussed the matter with Gov. Tom Wolf, and declined again to talk about the cases — this time under questioning by state Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, during an Appropriations Committee hearing.

“Mr. Secretary, what happened to those three people?” Lawrence asked Torres.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss individual cases,” Torres responded, before going on to defend the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

The nonprofit had undergone a change in leadership and had difficulties keeping and hiring staff caseworkers during the pandemic, Torres said.

Torres had his department’s staff step in and take the extraordinary step of handling hundreds of investigations for the nonprofit because it likely had not been complying with state laws that limit workers’ case loads, require caseworkers to promptly see potential victims and set deadlines to resolve cases.

“We started an extensive monitoring — which we’re still doing — and we’re helping them to work through these challenges,” Torres said.

Lawrence then asked Torres “if the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is responsible for the death of these three individuals.”

“I’m not at liberty to comment on the cases,” Torres repeated.

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is one of 52 “area agencies for aging” across Pennsylvania, some of which are county-run while others are nonprofits, that field calls about elder abuse or neglect under the Department of Aging contracts. They employ caseworkers to investigate and coordinate with doctors, service providers and if necessary, law enforcement.

The Department of Aging typically says nothing publicly when one of those 52 agencies fails to meet benchmarks set in state law.

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Torres has asked the Legislature for funding for eight more employees, primarily to help monitor how local agencies respond to abuse and neglect calls. A legislative agency last month reported that 11 of the agencies, including Philadelphia, were lacking in their response to reports of abuse or neglect, as of last August.

The AP, meanwhile, has challenged the department’s redactions of its internal documents, received through requests under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law. Wolf’s Office of Open Records has rejected AP’s appeals.

Lawrence asked Torres to provide an unredacted copy of his Aug. 6 letter to the president of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, in which Torres cites the cases and demands improvements.

“I would have to check with my counsel,” Torres responded.

The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging is not subject to the state Right to Know Law, and has ignored AP’s questions about its staffing.

Pennsylvania reserves the right to take over the task, or hire some other agency. Lawrence asked Torres about what it would take for the state to take over the task in Philadelphia.

Torres stuck to the same response he’s had since September: that he wants to help the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

“We’re working in Philadelphia. We have a plan. They have contractors that are supporting them. They have other area agencies that are supporting them,” Torres said. “So we’re hoping to get them to a point where we don’t have to exercise that option, but that is an option.”

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at twitter.com/timelywriter.