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Nursing Home Sexual Abuse: The Silent Epidemic

Title IX Sexual Harassment

To say that nursing home abuse is a horrifying act is an understatement. The appropriate adjective to describe the nursing home sexual abuse, however, would be “unspeakable” – except that we must speak of it, because it is a tragic reality. The December 2018 case of a nursing home resident who gave birth after having been in a vegetative state for years has finally brought the problem of nursing home sexual abuse to the national attention it deserves.

The problem is not nearly as rare as the relative media silence might suggest. And when the media does peek past the veil, the results are beyond disturbing. A 2017 CNN investigation, for example, found that between 2013 and 2016, the federal government issued more than 1,000 citations to nursing homes for mishandling reports of nursing home sexual abuse.

A Sampling of Recent Cases

The following cases are more or less typical examples of nursing home sexual abuse:

  • In 2014, it came to light that 83-year old Alzheimer’s victim, Sonja Fischer, had been raped at least once by a staff member at the nursing home where she resided. The nursing home had recently received the highest possible quality rating from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
  • In June 2017, 21-year-old, Justin Glenn Ellis, was charged with raping an 88-year-old woman after sneaking into a nursing home in Houston. He is suspected of involvement in several other similar crimes.
  • In August 2017, nursing aid, Luis Gomez, was convicted of six sexual offenses against nursing home residents. The conviction followed multiple “unsubstantiated” allegations against him that allowed him to continue working.

The foregoing examples are just the tip of the iceberg; literally thousands of allegations have surfaced over the past 10 years.

Efforts to Redress the Problem

State and federal governments have moved slowly and haltingly to address the problem that nobody wants to talk about, but changes have been made:

  • A 2011 federal law empowers the CMS to fine individual staff members at nursing homes. It is not only perpetrators who face scrutiny – fines of up to $200,000 can be assessed against staff members who fail to report an incident based on “reasonable suspicion” that abuse has occurred
    • In November 2016 the CMS changed the way it inspects nursing homes to render the results a more accurate reflection of the facility’s actual quality.The Nursing Home Compare database (a national registry of nursing homes) is available to compare Medicare-funded facilities based on the Five-Star Quality Rating System. This database also reports any recent citations issued to a nursing home.
  • A proposed regulation would punish nursing homes that fire “whistleblowers” by withdrawing all federal funding from them.

The efforts that are being made are undeniably admirable, but they are simply not enough. Raising public awareness of the problem, however, holds the promise of effective future reforms.

Why the Problem Has Been Ignored for So Long

Nursing home sexual abuse is particularly difficult to detect and substantiate for several reasons:

  • Nursing home sexual abuse victims often suffer from cognitive disabilities such as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Nursing home staff frequently lack specific training on how to spot sexual abuse.
  • Nursing homes, fearing lawsuits, burdensome investigations, and even criminal charges, sometimes prioritize their own well-being over the well-being of their residents.

Perhaps the most important factor of all (and one of the most shocking) is that there is no comprehensive national data on the aggregate number of nursing home sexual abuse cases that have occurred nationwide. This lack of data renders the problem difficult to study, much less combat.

Telltale Signs of Nursing Home Sexual Abuse

The following are a few of the tell-tale signs of nursing home abuse. If your loved one exhibits more than one of them, you should be on the alert.

  • Bruises appearing in genital areas, breasts, and thighs
  • Vaginal bleeding without a medical reason
  • Torn or bloodstained clothing
  • Difficulty sitting or walking
  • Depression, emotional withdrawal or moodiness
  • Anxiety in the presence of a caregiver
  • Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Some of these signs, of course, could be generated by something other than sexual abuse.

What Can Be Done

At the family level, you should be aware of the potential for nursing home sexual abuse, remain vigilant, and dare to think the unthinkable without jumping to conclusions. Remember that anyone inside or outside the victim’s family can report suspected nursing home abuse to New York’s long-term care ombudsman program. In addition, the following initiatives, if aggressively executed, might drastically reduce the incidence of nursing home sexual abuse:

  • Increase the pool of available nursing home staff so that nursing homes will keep the facility well-supervised and so that nursing homes will not be tempted to hire staff with questionable backgrounds.
  • Strengthen federal regulations concerned with the reporting and sharing of information on nursing home staff who have engaged in sexual or other types of abuse.
  • Create a national background check registry to vet applicants for nursing home staff positions.
  • Publish resident and family satisfaction ratings for nursing homes.

Seeking Fair Compensation

Nursing home administrators may be able to escape criminal charges by asserting that “We had no idea that [the perpetrator] would do something like that.” It is a lot more difficult, however, for them to escape civil liability. If the abuser was an employee of the nursing home, the nursing home itself is likely to be held automatically liable for his actions – even if the nursing home administration itself was not at fault. Negligent hiring could be another way of establishing liability.

If the abuse was committed by an independent contractor or by another resident, liability on the part of the nursing home must be shown before the nursing home itself can be held liable. In this instance, a nursing home sexual abuse lawyer may try to prove that the perpetrator was inadequately supervised or that the nursing acted negligently in retaining a particular contractor.

Nursing homes are extensively regulated by New York nursing home regulations and, if the facility accepts Medicaid/Medicare, by federal nursing home regulations. Violation of nursing home regulations is usually considered automatic negligence in New York, and it will establish liability if the violation resulted in the abuse. Nursing home neglect, as evidenced by bedsores (also known as decubitus ulcers or pressure sores), can also trigger liability.

The Time to Act Is Now

If you suspect that your loved one is a victim of nursing home sexual abuse, time matters. Contact Hacker Murphy either online or by calling our Albany office at (518) 284-3183 to schedule a free initial consultation. We also maintain offices in TroySaratoga, and Schenectady.