Nursing home abuse case makes an ugly story

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By Al Norman

There was a very disturbing story in The Salem News out of Topsfield at the end of April. According to news accounts, four workers at a nursing home were fired, along with two top administrators.

A report from the Department of Public Health, which oversees nursing homes, said that the workers had subjected the residents in the facility to verbal abuse and humiliation, including taking photos of them in embarrassing situations. The newspaper said the taunting involved sexually explicit remarks, provoking the patients — some of whom were suffering from dementia.

The workers regularly used profanities around patients; engaged in conversations about sexual activities and illicit drug use. One employee “regularly took photos in patient rooms on her cell phone,” the news story said.

Another resident was told that a nursing home worker was engaging in sexual relations with the resident’s husband and that her husband was leaving her.

A third resident was told, “she was going to die at the facility because her husband no longer loved her.”

This, and many other deplorable incidents, took place in 2010 and the early part of 2011 in a 123 bed nursing home that is part of a chain of nine nursing homes in Massachusetts. All the staff people were eventually fired. There were a number of other staff people who worked in the facility who failed to report what they knew and saw. The only reason the story came out was because one worker in the nursing home blew the whistle.

The state fined the facility $3,000 a day since the report was made on March 25. But no amount of fines could undo the harm that was done to the elders, and to the families who thought they had placed their loved ones in the trusting care of this nursing facility.

According to The Salem News, the newspaper tried to get a copy of this DPH report under the state’s Public Record’s act, but state officials would not release the documents. The newspaper then filed a Freedom of Information request with the federal government, which released the state report.

There are so many things wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know where to start:

•There were workers at the facility who clearly did not know how the abuse reporting law works, or else were afraid to report the abuse.

•The administrators of the facility were insulated enough from the daily operations of the “home” that they did not find about the abuse until months after it occurred.

•State officials apparently did not want to release the state reports to the media.

Abuse thrives in the dark. When reports aren’t made, when investigations are hidden, abuse is abetted. This horrible story is a reminder that family members need to stay engaged with any facility where they place a loved one. Unannounced visits at different times of the day and evening are one way to fight abuse.

This Topsfield case was more than just the callousness of a few workers — it was an entire institutional meltdown. This kind of gross negligence often gets worked out in court, but the state needs to invest enough resources in nursing facility inspections that administrators begin to feel that they are truly being watched. Because sometimes — unfortunately — that’s what is needed.

Al Norman is the executive director of Mass Home Care. He can be reached at 413-773-5555 or at info@masshomecare.org.