When CNN published a report revealing widespread sexual abuse and assault in nursing homes, many people asked the same question: Why isn’t more being done to stop it?
The multi-part investigation revealed disturbing cases of rape and sexual abuse by nursing assistants and found that more than 1,000 nursing homes had been cited for mishandling suspected cases of sexual abuse. It also documented the trail of one aide who is accused of being a serial abuser — moving from facility to facility despite a history of allegations against him.
In response, the National Association of Health Care Assistants pledged to take action. The organization said it was “saddened and sickened by the CNN investigative report” and that it planned to immediately ramp up its education and training efforts. It said it especially wants to ensure that nursing assistants know how to spot potential abuse and report it promptly.
CNN also heard from family members who say they believe their loved ones were victimized, nursing home employees who say they were forced out of their jobs after reporting abuse and advocates for the elderly and industry insiders who say immediate change is needed.
“We have been advocating for quality care for more than four decades, yet the findings of the CNN investigation are among the most shocking and frightening we have ever encountered,” Lori Smetanka, executive director of the nonprofit group Consumer Voice, said in a public statement, one of several issued by advocacy groups in reaction to the report. “The sexual abuse of defenseless, vulnerable residents who can’t remove themselves from harm, often can’t communicate what has happened, and are frequently not believed even when they do, is reprehensible.”
Other advocates called for action, noting that legislation currently being considered could offer potential solutions — while others could make the issue even worse. In Missouri, for instance, a bill introduced in January by Republican state Rep. Andrew McDaniel would allow hidden cameras in facilities across the state, mirroring laws already in effect in a handful of other states.
But federal legislation introduced two days after CNN’s investigation was published could make it far more difficult to hold problematic nursing homes accountable for abuse, according to elder abuse attorneys. The bill, submitted by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, would limit the legal liability of nursing homes, among a wide variety of other doctors, medical facilities and companies. Proponents of the bill say it is aimed at cutting health care costs.
But if passed, critics say the law would not only apply to medical accidents but also to egregious cases of sexual and physical abuse. As a result, the costs of litigating a case against an accused abuser or nursing home — like many of the horrific examples detailed in CNN’s investigation — likely would outweigh the amount of money a victim could recover. The measure also could result in abuses by caregivers going unchecked — especially given the already paltry penalties facilities cited for abuse often receive from the government.
“Without the threat of litigation, companies can do whatever they want,” said Kathryn Stebner, an elder abuse attorney in California who represented a woman who claims that she contracted an incurable sexually transmitted disease after being raped in a nursing home at the age of 88.
Many of the readers who contacted CNN about the investigation said it confirmed their worst fears, while others with firsthand experience in nursing homes said they had long seen these problems go unaddressed. Among their messages:
“I just read your incredible piece on elder rape on my iPhone…Now I can’t breathe. This happened to my dearest Mother at 91…I found out .. saw something.. she told me, then she stopped speaking… and died. It was horrific, unbelievable, impossible. Worse, just as you said, neither the nursing home or police showed any interest at all in following it up. Because she had died…And he is still out there.” — Reader from New York
“Thank you for bringing hope to those who suffer silently during a time in their lives they are the most vulnerable.” — Former nurse who says she was fired after speaking out against sexual abuse in the facility where she worked
“This excellent report is long overdue and one that sickens me to the core. I too, had a grandmother in a facility years ago when this was definitely not a topic of conversation.” — A reader from Tennessee who believes her grandmother was sexually assaulted in the facility
“My grandmother was in a nursing home where an aide was arrested for sexually abusing two other women. My grandmother had passed away before he was arrested, but I always wonder if she was also a victim.” — Reader from North Carolina
“There are people who are gifted at being a caregiver and love doing it. We need to acknowledge this work as the skilled labor it is, and the enormous impact either good, or God forbid bad, these individuals have on patients’ and families’ lives, and pay them accordingly. For real change and better honor towards our precious sick and elderly, start here.” — Reader from Texas
“Elderly abuse is an epidemic and it is an issue that deserves much more attention. It is shocking how management in these horrible places shamefully ignores abuse.” — Hospice nurse from Florida
“The nursing home administrator sought my agreement that we all should hope this never happened.” — Reader who says a nurse was caught sexually assaulting his mother
“This story horrified me. I am sickened to think these types of things happen in our society. We should require that every nursing home must have cameras in every room and monitoring 24/7. It won’t solve the problem but it would be a strong deterrent. How can the public help?” — Reader from Texas