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Understanding the Adult Protective Services Registry System

In Arizona, a vulnerable adult is statutorily defined through A.R.S. § 46-451(A)(10), which states that: “…an individual who is eighteen years of age or older and who is unable to protect himself from abuse, neglect or exploitation by others because of a physical or mental impairment” [1].

As should be evident from the legal definition, the range of potential scenarios that could lead to a vulnerability finding is interminably broad [2]. Vulnerability is not just defined by mental or physical handicaps, but also the obstacles involved with aging and being unable to care for one’s needs later in life. Conversely, even a young adult with a disability which causes them to be eligible for a power of attorney (POA), guardianship, or supported decision-making order may be dubbed “vulnerable.” This broad definition, coupled with the highly specified needs of vulnerable adults at risk, results in Adult Protective Services (APS) initiating investigations for thousands of suspected cases of abuse on a yearly basis.

Harm against a vulnerable adult as defined by Arizona statute is not limited to just physical injury. Definitions of abuse and neglect for vulnerable adults are not identical to those used to in regulation of parents or childcare workers because there are different circumstances and needs to consider for this population.

  • Abuse – in addition to clear examples–like physical injury-abuse allegations may also arise from unreasonable confinement, emotional abuse, or injuries caused by negligent omissions by caretakers of vulnerable adults.
  • Neglect – neglect of a vulnerable adult includes many of the same elements as neglect of children, such as failure to provide food, shelter, and medical care, but also includes some duties unique to adults (e.g., depriving of services necessary to maintain minimum physical or mental health)
    • In supported care settings, neglect could include abandonment of responsibilities related to a paid position, such as failing to provide care up to the standard required of a caregiver based on the unique needs of the adult in care
    • Cases of illness/injury caused by abuse and neglect in group care settings also include potential liability on the part of the employer/group residence where they occur for personal injuries of the vulnerable adult. APS does not directly regulate the licenses of entities operating in this field, and making a personal claim of liability against a care home provider is an entirely different area of legal expertise.
  • Exploitation – also described colloquially as “financial abuse,” exploitation of resources may include wrongfully depositing money intended for a vulnerable adult (such as Social Security checks), accessing ATM accounts, signing checks on the adult’s behalf without authorization, etc.
    • Exploitation reported in the aggregate can range from small transactions to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the operative factor is whether the use of funds is for purposes other than the benefit of the vulnerable adult

 

In 2023, over 42,000 cases of maltreatment of vulnerable adults were reported to APS. [3]. What happens once a report of such abuse is made? Similar to a Department of Child Safety investigation, a specialist will investigate the claim and determine whether sufficient evidence exists to support a finding of abuse or neglect. Even if criminal charges are not filed, the individual found to have abused or neglected a vulnerable adult may be placed on the Adult Protective Services registry. The possible outcomes of an APS investigation are that the finding will be:

  • Unsubstantiated – facts of the allegation reported could not be confirmed/verified, alleged victim not actually vulnerable
  • Substantiated and verified – allegation/facts did occur, but perpetrator not placed on the registry (which includes cases of self-neglect, or those with an unidentified/deceased perpetrator)
  • Substantiated and put on registry – allegation did occur and the perpetrator of abuse/neglect/exploitation of a vulnerable adult placed is on APS registry

 

Unlike the DCS central registry, which is nonpublic, the APS registry is available online for anyone to view. This is especially damaging to those seeking employment in caregiving industries. Even without a special interest in having a career caring for vulnerable adults, the visibility of this registry often creates greater concern that a substantiation will lead to personal and professional harm. Proposed registry placement can be appealed and eventually challenged in court. Unfortunately, the process for appealing a finding can be arduous and confusing with many potential pitfalls and hurdles before the appellant has their “day in court” (or the administrative law equivalent thereof). Consulting with an attorney as early as possible in the administrative process affords the most opportunity to successfully challenge an APS investigative finding.


[1] Arizona Adult Protective Services Definitions | Arizona Department of Economic Security (az.gov)

[2] This definition also includes incapacitated individuals, further defined by ARS 14-5101.

[3] APS Data Dashboard | Arizona Department of Economic Security (az.gov)

Further Reading: This visual provides an abridged outline of the legal processes associated with a registry finding and substantiation.  AAA-1356A – Adult Protective Services (APS) Investigation Process Map (az.gov)


Markus Risinger is an attorney at Woodnick Law, PLLC and MLS faculty associate teaching administrative regulation at the ASU Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He practices in all aspects of child welfare matters, including Title 8 dependency/severance, Title 13 defense litigation, Title 25 parent and third-party rights, Title 41 administrative controversies, and appeals.

Mallory Scott is a 3L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and law clerk at Woodnick Law PLLC. While working as a clerk during the summer, she has the opportunity to work on real-world litigation, but also research topics of interest relating to the future practice of law. The practice values exploration into collateral topics that relate to families, especially their relevance to popular culture and media.

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