Protecting Your Family Member From Nursing Home Abuse

nursing home patient lookin out a window

By: Attorney Ken Harrell

Sometimes it’s disheartening to read the news because the level of depravity that’s required to be front page news is so disgusting.  That was my reaction today when I read an article on CNN’s website about an Arizona nurse who has been arrested for raping and impregnating a nursing home patient who was in a vegetative state.  (In case you’re wondering, not all nurses are women and not all nursing home residents are elderly.)  The police were able to zero in on this suspect by using DNA samples from the facility’s employees.   The alleged rapist had worked as a nurse at this nursing home facility since 2011.  Time will tell whether other residents were subjected to sexual assault during that time period.  If the alleged debased actions of this nurse are true, it would be hard to fathom that this assault was a one-time event.  Just as pedophiles try to worm their way into situations that give them access to children, the debilitated state of many nursing home residents has been a magnet for several serial rapists.

When you hear about these types of horrible attacks, it can be depressing because many of us find ourselves in situations where we have to find a nursing home for a parent – and it won’t be too terribly long before many of us are facing the prospect of living in a nursing home or assisted living facility.  As I have often said, it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of people who work at nursing homes are good, decent people who find meaning in helping to care for the most vulnerable.  Likewise, the majority of nursing homes are well-run with procedures in place to minimize injuries to their residents.  However, when bad apples slip through the cracks, the harm they can do in a nursing home is enormous as many residents lack the ability to defend themselves, or even to tell others what they have been subjected to.

When we think of nursing home injuries, what typically comes to mind are injuries like bed sores and broken bones from falls.  These types of injuries can be the basis for a nursing home neglect claim depending on the circumstances.  However, instances of rape and other sexual assaults committed by nursing home employees is not as rare as we’d like to think.  In 2017, CNN reported that the federal government had reprimanded over 1,000 facilities for failing to report or prevent cases of sexual assault between 2013 and 2016, with close to 100 of these facilities having received multiple citations.  Scarily, many experts feel that this number is a drop in the bucket as to how many of these assaults occur because so many nursing home residents suffer from conditions like Alzheimer’s or dementia, which prevents them from reporting the crimes.

So what do you do if you have a loved one living in a nursing home facility?  The best protection for your loved one is for your family and you to stay as involved as possible in your relative’s life.  Visit as frequently as you can, and try to visit on different days of the week and at different times of the day.  Often, the quality disparity between nursing home shifts can be striking.  When you visit, take note of the impression you get of the nursing home.  Is it clean?  Does it smell bad?  Does the staff seem apathetic or even hostile to the residents?  We all have God-given gut instincts and if those instincts are telling you that something is off about a facility, you should trust them.

For the horrific crime of sexual abuse, there are physical signs you should look for, especially if your family member has difficulty verbally expressing himself or herself.  Those signs include bruising in the genital areas, breasts and inner thighs, vaginal infections or bleeding, and pain in the vaginal or anal areas.  If there is suddenly discomfort exhibited in your relative’s walking or sitting, this can be a tell-tale sign. If you loved one has a marked reaction to the presence of certain staff members or is suddenly sullen and withdrawn, this also can be a sign of abuse.

Of course, none of us wants to be in a position of feeling like our family member is in a nursing home where abuse is occurring.  What can you do on the front end to help pick the right nursing home?  Most nursing homes receive Medicare payments.  There’s a national registry of all of these nursing homes (www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare) that provides rankings for all of these nursing home facilities, and which lets you know of any facility citations for abuse (sexual or otherwise) over the previous three years.  No one should make a decision about a nursing home without at least visiting this website to see how a facility has graded out.

Once a decision has been made about a nursing home, consider starting a family council at the facility.  Per federal law, if two or more nursing home resident relatives want to meet to discuss issues related to the nursing home, the nursing home is required to provide them with a meeting location, and must respond to the council’s recommendations within a specified period of time.

Finally, I’ll go back to the importance of trusting your gut instincts.  If those instincts are telling you that your family member was submitted to sexual abuse in a nursing home, be proactive.  Ensure that your family member gets immediate medical attention.  Call adult protective services.  Call the police.  And finally, call a good lawyer who can help you investigate the situation.