IN YESTERDAY'S column, I lamented that those who abuse the elderly are expert at keeping them hidden behind locked doors, so that we can't respond to their peril.

I presumed that had been the case with Prane Paciunas, the 89-year-old Frankford widow whose caregiver, Jean Dombrowski, 48, allegedly starved, neglected and abused Paciunas to death.

But the heartbreaking truth is that many good people knew, in their gut, that something was wrong with the way Dombrowski was treating Paciunas.

And they tried to help.

When neighbor Mike Zerumskas, who knew Paciunas his entire life, brought her babka and kielbasa last Christmas, he was startled to see that her pantry was bare. So he and his brother-in-law stocked it with food from ShopRite.

When he visited in April for Easter, the only things in Paciunas' refrigerator were a soda bottle and a few slices of lunch meat. Alarmed, he called the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

"They asked me a barrage of questions," says Zerumskas. "I asked if I could call back after they investigated, but they said they couldn't tell me anything because of privacy laws."

In September, neighbor Carmen McCarthy also called PCA. She'd seen shady strangers going in and out of Paciunas' house day and night. The once-tidy property had fallen into decay.

And Paciunas no longer went outside - at all.

"PCA told me they knew of her, because they'd gotten calls," says McCarthy, adding that another worried neighbor also contacted PCA on Paciunas' behalf.

PCA spokeswoman Linda Riley told me that federal privacy laws prevented her from commenting on Paciunas; she couldn't even confirm whether PCA had gotten calls about her. But she stressed that every allegation the agency receives regarding adult-protective services is investigated, "100 percent of the time."

If so, what in the world did PCA not see on its multiple visits to Paciunas?

And then there's Stephany Gutauskas, Paciunas' fellow parishioner at St. George's Catholic Church. Gutauskas was so frantic about Paciunas (whom Dombrowski repeatedly prevented her from seeing) that she visited the 15th Police District on Nov. 2 to beg officers to investigate.

She says the desk cop told her that he was unable to dispatch officers from the district and advised Gutauskas to call 9-1-1 herself. She declined because she presumed police would need a court order to check on Paciunas.

Not so, says Lt. John Stanford, a police spokesman .

"It never should have happened that way," he says. "The officer at the window is more than capable of handling the assignment to make sure the person receives the proper assistance. He should have alerted dispatch. If an officer then had reason to believe the person was in danger, he wouldn't have needed a court order to go inside."

Stanford says that the chief inspector who oversees operations in the city's northern region is investigating the botched handling of Gutauskas' complaint.

"This never should have occurred at all," says Stanford.

Might Paciunas have lived, if police had arrived five days sooner than Nov. 7, the day they finally learned she was in danger?

And what of PCA? Right now, it looks as if the laws that protect the privacy of callers and victims also conveniently protect PCA's actions from scrutiny.

These questions haunt Zerumskas. The night before Paciunas passed away, he and McCarthy visited her at Aria Health's Frankford hospital. By then, Paciunas, dying, had been moved into the hospice unit.

Her head was shaved because of lice, and her once-stocky body was so bony that he and McCarthy did not recognize her.

"I thought she would be sitting up, talking. But she was out of it, moaning. Her breathing was labored," says Zerumskas. "I spoke to her in Lithuanian and English, but she didn't respond. I was completely shocked. She had been this lively, vibrant person. To see her like that, I almost collapsed."

Not knowing what else to do, he prayed over her - the Lord's Prayer and a prayer asking the angels to protect her. McCarthy, who'd brought a bouquet of roses, hoped that Paciunas could at least smell them.

Paciunas died that night.

"I think maybe, hearing the prayers, she was finally able to let go," says Zerumskas.

Into the arms of heaven, finally released from hell on Earth.

Phone: 215-854-2217

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