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Abuse, sexual assault, and other forms of neglect is a largely hidden problem facing most states when it comes to nursing home facilities that are charged with caring for some of the most vulnerable members of society.
A chain of nursing homes called Keeney Country Homes located in Missouri was shut down last year after the discovery of the chain’s owner in a hotel room with two mentally ill women. The owner was later charged with rape and sodomy.
Nursing home abuse is often ignored or minimized by homes, staff, friends and family and even regulators. However, one federal program reported more than 20,000 complaints of sexual abuse at nursing homes over 20 years. That report did not include instances where one resident sexually assaulted another.
The problem is widespread and those who advocate for the rights of the residents of long-term care facilities report that regulators fall short when it comes to stopping nursing home abuse in the first place. In all but the most horrific cases, facility operators are often slapped with a fine or cut off from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement. Sometimes nothing happens.
The organizations formed to monitor nursing home abuse often fall short as well. State ombudsman offices that are meant to represent the interests of residents in long-term care facilities are short-staffed and often cannot spare enough people to meet their own schedule of visits to facilities.
One advocate group or nursing home residents in Kansas reported that inspectors only visited each home every sixteen months, in addition to when an instance of nursing home abuse was reported. According to the advocacy group, the ombudsman office is short-staffed and has nine openings for inspectors. When nursing home abuse is discovered, regulators often implement penalties meant to prevent future abuse.
According to advocacy groups, sexual assault and other forms of nursing home abuse are increasing, but legislation addressing the problem is rare. In 2009, a bill that would have required Missouri care facilities to do background checks on residents passed, but the requirement became voluntary and the law lost its teeth.
Trained volunteers try to bridge the gap to prevent nursing home abuse by helping state offices conduct their regularly scheduled inspections, but the number of volunteers is still lacking. Most long-term care facilities in Kansas, according to one advocacy group, never have an inspection.
According to advocacy groups, nursing home abuse often goes unreported. Sometimes residents do not have the mental capacity or ability to report. Other times residents, staff, or even family, friends or volunteers are too embarrassed to report. The problem may be that nursing home abuse is seen as a family issue and not a crime. In the case of the Missouri chain of nursing homes, a hotel employee sensed something suspicious was going on and alerted authorities.
Another problem, say advocacy groups, is that instances of nursing home abuse including sexual assault are not well tracked by government agencies at any level, local, state and federal. However, the Administration for Community Living is working on a uniform reporting system called the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System.
Another issue to be addressed in cases of nursing home abuse are criminal charges. Sometimes the criminal prosecution of such cases moves slowly or the abuse is not reported to law enforcement.
According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, nursing homes often have a financial incentive to fail to report nursing home abuse to law enforcement. Facility operators worry that reporting incidents will be bad for business or will lead to expensive litigation. Some jurisdictions have formed elder units that specialize in crimes against the elderly including nursing home abuse.