Content note: this piece discusses graphic details of caregiver abuse for the purpose of examining the scope and nature of abuse inflicted by people entrusted with the lives of disabled people who need assistance to complete tasks of daily living. Some of it may be disturbing. Be advised that linked stories contain explicit details.
Impairments can be highly variable in nature. Some allow people to live more or less completely independently, while others necessitate more interdependent relationships, and others require regular supportive care. Disabled people with with impairments that require some level of support are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and, thanks to social attitudes, they’re devalued by the people around them — including the representatives of the very government agencies that are supposed to protect them.
The United States is experiencing an epidemic of caregiver abuse, a problem that extends to the elderly community in addition to the disabled community, and it’s a problem that’s not just limited to US shores. One of the most sinister forms this abuse takes is that of the so-called ‘people collector,’ the people who take caregiver abuse to an entirely new and horrific level. In 2011, for instance, the Tacony dungeon case attracted international headlines, but the most disturbing thing about that case may not have been the suffering endured by four captives trapped in a basement for almost a decade — rather, the true horror lay in how many cases just like it haven’t been discovered yet.
Caregiver abuse itself is bad enough, including the routine physical and emotional abuse of people living in supported care, institutions, or at home. It can come from family members, partners, nurses, and orderlies, and may continue for weeks, months, or years until it’s identified — sometimes too late for the victim, as caregiver abuse and neglect can be fatal.
However, there’s an aspect to the Representative Payee Program that’s immensely flawed: there’s no guarantee that the payee herself won’t abuse the client receiving benefits, and herein lies a significant flaw and loophole for exploitation.
People collectors, however, bring this to an entirely new level, taking advantage of the physical, cognitive, or intellectual impairments that may make it difficult to navigate society and exploiting people for their benefits cheques. Social Security’s Representative Payee Program allows people other than the named beneficiary to collect Social Security cheques, on the grounds that someone may not be able to manage her money effectively or may need assistance with basic tasks like going to the bank, picking up prescriptions, and so forth. Other benefits programmes, including food assistance, regional assistance, and so forth, also provide similar payment designation options.
On the surface, they may seem logical; a disabled person might opt for a representative payee to make it easier to get tasks accomplished if she has limited mobility or has difficulty handling money, for example. A person with cognitive impairments might not have the skills to manage a bank account, or someone with a severe brain injury might be at risk of financial exploitation, so having a financial representative can help reduce the risks of being financially abused.
However, there’s an aspect to the Representative Payee Program that’s immensely flawed: there’s no guarantee that the payee herself won’t abuse the client receiving benefits, and herein lies a significant flaw and loophole for exploitation. It was seen in the Tacony dungeon case, where Linda Weston and four accomplices kept disabled victims in deplorable conditions in their basement, collecting their benefits cheques all the while. The victims were discovered in an extreme state of malnutrition, with obvious signs of physical abuse, including forced prostitution.
Sakinah Robertson was discovered lying in her own waste, tied to a bed. The officers responding initially thought she was dead, due to her state of extreme emaciation and obviously poor condition. Sandra Choates exploited Robin Cullins, seizing her victim’s benefits cheques to go on spending sprees while Cullins lived in filthy, horrific conditions in a house filled with maggots and rats. Frances Lowry, an elderly woman with low vision, was exploited by her nephew. In all these cases, the victims were left to their own devices with just barely enough support to stay alive — ensuring that their benefits cheques would continue to arrive.
Clarence Shuford was beaten and battered for years while neighbours studiously ignored the situation until a newspaper received an anonymous phone call and followed up. He had intellectual disabilities and struggled to escape his captivity, but his ‘guardian’ kept tight control over him, ensuring that his financial support continued to flow.
In Massachusetts, an elderly woman was allowed to lie in bed to the point that she developed pressure sores, but that wasn’t the worst of it: the victim was emaciated, and the heat was off, exposing her to dangerously low temperatures.
In all of these cases, the victims were incarcerated for the purpose of collecting their benefits. Since benefits stop once people die, their captors had an incentive to keep them alive — just barely — but beyond that, they felt no obligations to provide basic care and respect to the people living under their roofs. In these and countless other cases, elderly and disabled people were locked into dark, dank rooms filled with vermin, kept in a state of malnutrition, often tied down or otherwise restrained to prevent escape, and commonly physically abused as well with beatings, whippings, tasings, and more.
Since benefits stop once people die, their captors had an incentive to keep them alive — just barely — but beyond that, they felt no obligations to provide basic care and respect to the people living under their roofs.
The people collectors gather as many victims as they can in order to increase the amount of monthly benefits they can collect, exploiting their victims and forcing them to sign off on designated beneficiary paperwork, and exploiting the legal system, which is in charge of appointing guardians and overseeing care options for disabled and elderly people deemed ‘unfit’ to make their own decisions.
They’re also exploiting social benefits and resources, taking advantage of the fact that many social services agencies are overstretched. Even when workers genuinely care about elderly and disabled populations, they’re often working hurriedly, trying to manage extremely large caseloads, and struggling to keep pace with the demands on their time. Consequently, cases begin to fall through the cracks — except that each crack represents human lives.
Despite reports of suspected abuse and concerns from neighbours, social services in many cases failed to respond to abuse situations, or responded far too late. Worse yet, sometimes they inspected premises and deemed them acceptable, according to agency records, considering the matter done and dusted.
For potential people collectors, this creates an ideal situation. It’s a heady mix of ableism, ageism, and classism. Collectors take advantage of the fact that society cares least about its disabled people, aging adults, and poor people, knowing that it’s easy to exploit and abuse such populations without comment, and often without being caught, either. These groups are the silent, unrepresented voices of society, and they stand little chance in a world where they’re devalued and treated as garbage.
The risks, to the eyes of people collectors, are worth the benefits, as they can collect salaries for providing care along with food stamps, benefits cheques, heating assistance, housing assistance, and other things.
While individual disabled, elderly, and poor people don’t collect very much in terms of benefits, thanks to a society that enforces poverty through its government benefits administration, if a people collector can muster a group of victims, these benefits can become significant. The stakes escalate, with human beings viewed as little more than revenue streams. Conditions worsen for those being held in captivity.
Neighbours say nothing, social services don’t have the resources to monitor the situation, and people collectors grow more bold. Their captives turn into sources of frustration with their demands for food, supplies for basic hygiene, and other needs. That fuels abusive behaviours, designed to cow victims, keep them submissive, and put a swift and decisive stop to escape attempts. The longer they go without being caught, the more daring they get.
Frustratingly, these situations are often approached as a cause for concern not because they involve the abuse of living human beings who deserve autonomy and respect, but because they are a form of Social Security fraud. Clearly, the concern here is that the money is being stolen and put to inappropriate purposes, not that people are being abused to get it!
Neighbours say nothing, social services don’t have the resources to monitor the situation, and people collectors grow more bold.
In the wake of the horrific dungeon case in Philadelphia, Social Security began a pilot programme to scrutinise representative payees. The idea is to prevent fraud and protect people collecting Social Security through a series of measures such as requiring the submission of accounting documentation, running background checks on prospective payees, and conducting spot checks of large facilities. However, the campaign has gaping holes: the SSA is already struggling to meet legal obligations, so who will be going over these accounting documents? Who will be conducting spot checks?
For that matter, what about people collectors with one or two victims, or a small group, in their homes? And those who use various tactics to get around Social Security, such as registering co-conspirators to avoid sending up red flags? The agency itself admits that it doesn’t have the resource to regularly inspect, let alone spot check, facilities of this scale, which means that the people collector problem remains largely intact: the same conditions that allowed people to exploit disabled people and older adults in their communities remain intact under this programme.
Even the background check databasing is woefully inadequate, as the agency is forced to rely on public records, which can be outdated and incorrect. The agency again has to somehow eke out time and personnel to perform such checks thoroughly and correctly with the limited resources it’s allowed to access, which creates the risk of looming loopholes.
How much protection will people really experience as a result of this pilot programme, which is currently being expanded? The vast majority of abuse cases are identified not by social services, but by chance events. A phone call from a concerned neighbour. An alert police officer who decides to dig just a little deeper because something doesn’t feel right. Strange noises coming from a basement. This is no way to coherently and cohesively protect disabled people.
In a society where older and disabled people are viewed as lesser, these groups require special attention and protection to make it clear that abuses of this nature won’t be tolerated. People collectors need to be vigorously identified and prosecuted for the sake of their victims, and to send a message to others considering the same get rich quick scheme — enough.