On the good days, clients of the program Carmen Castaneda oversees may just be victims of their own age and deteriorating mental conditions, unaware that they are endangering their own lives.

On the bad days, the clients are murderous psychopaths who want out of a security hospital and will say anything to achieve it.

As program manager for Adult Protection Services for Hennepin County, Castaneda oversees a staff that handles reports of physical, psychological and financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. She also manages the cases of 219 mentally ill and dangerous clients who may be held or recently released from places such as the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter.

A lot of her stories, which she shared over coffee one recent morning, end with “it was the saddest thing ever” or “it was horrible.” In her job, she has been bonked on the head and had a table overturned on her.

Yet Castaneda, who has been in social work for 36 years, has the gallows humor of a homicide detective. She is quick with a joke and has a hearty, infectious laugh. That’s because she relishes the challenge and excitement, and because almost every day her department is able to help a vulnerable adult in some way.

“You have to want action; you can’t be afraid of it,” she said. “To me, it’s not a job, it’s a calling. It’s a passion.”

Castaneda’s is probably one of the most important public roles you’ve never heard of. With the “tsunami of baby boomers” entering their senior years, the importance of her agency will only increase. The number of cases of neglect and exploitation have soared, so much so that the county has budgeted for adding three more field workers to investigate abuse. Last year, Castaneda’s department fielded 13,000 reports and 12 staffers handled 800 to 900 investigations, or about a quarter of the state’s cases.

The No. 1 problem for vulnerable adults is self-neglect — people who are ill or cognitively unable to recognize they can’t take care of themselves.

The second most common case is financial exploitation, in which everyone from overseas scammers to the person’s own children trick the adults into giving away money until they are destitute.

She recalls one man whose vulnerability was shared by a growing number of criminals. He was giving money to people in prison and one of them even moved in with him. Investigators eventually had to move him out of his house for his own protection.

“That was so sad,” said Castaneda. “People were crying as we were taking him out of his home.”

The man was eventually placed with family, but not until thieves took more than half a million dollars from him.

“Of course most times we go in without their consent,” said Castaneda. “We have to have the ability to get ourselves in. I always say we have the most skillful social workers around because the only tool we have is ourselves. We have to develop a relationship, because in a lot of cases we have no authority to do a darned thing. With adults, when you go in to intervene, they have basic rights. Our goal is to coax them into accepting services.”

The reason so many adults fall for financial scams is often physical, Castaneda said. “It’s called mild cognitive impairment, and it starts happening to us at age 55,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people out there who are suffering from this.”

People are struggling to make ends meet, yet give everything away to charity. Successful businessmen fall for “sweetheart deals” and blow their grandkids’ trust funds on a young, persuasive woman, not completely aware of their own mental impairment.

“The first thing to go is the ability to mind finances,” said Castaneda. “Family members really need to watch what is going on with their loved ones. Thanksgiving should be a time families do an inventory. We get a lot of calls around Mother’s Day too. They get together and say, ‘Mom’s really gone downhill,’ and they don’t realize it.

“People we visit shouldn’t be afraid of us,” said Castaneda. “They think we are going to come and snatch them up and put them in a nursing home, but that’s not our goal. Our goal is to respect their autonomy and render services as we can.”

Increasingly, financial scams directed at seniors are being conducted by gangs and organized crime, so Castaneda’s agency works closely with police, prosecutors and even a forensic accounting team.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman has worked with Castaneda for years.

“She’s been a terrific advocate on behalf of vulnerable adults her whole career,” he said. “She’s energetic and charismatic. These cases are tragic and hard. [Carmen] makes us all better. She inspires us and keeps us going.”

In fact, Castaneda received a prominent award last month for her lifelong commitment to vulnerable adults, something that surprised her.

“I couldn’t believe it. I don’t consider myself an advocate, I’m an objective finder of fact,” she said. “We have to be objective because we take people’s rights away, when we have to.”

Castaneda said she’s motivated by the tough cases, and intrigued by the people she meets, including the sociopaths. “I love it, they are fascinating,” she said. “They lie like crazy to you.”

“It’s very gratifying work, Castaneda said. “We get complaints — you did too much, you didn’t do enough. We get the angry guy from Edina mad because we called the cops and he’s embarrassed. We have to explain, when you beat up your elderly mother, we call the cops.”

Physical assaults on vulnerable adults are the hardest.

“It’s terrible. We see it every day. Then you get the sex abuse cases — people rape their own mother,” Castaneda said, shaking her head.

“You can’t get down, though,” said Castaneda. “I’m always kind of buoyed up, because most of the time we can do something. It takes a special person to work in protective services, because you have to get used to listening to horrible, dreadful things. Unless we lock people up in gulags, there will be more people at risk. That’s part of life, though. We’re all at risk.”