I really hadn't planned on blogging about this story. It's a significant story, related to the abuse of elderly people in Oregon. However; when I tried to comment on it on the Oregonian website, a message popped up saying "This appears to be a duplicate comment" (hmm....), so I was left with no choice but to write here.
Back in November, 2007, the Oregonian ran a story about abuse in group homes and foster care homes in our state. I blogged about the story then. I made my concerns about that situation very clear, and became involved in a lot of work in an attempt to "stem the tide" of abuse in Oregon. Of course, I did it in my usual way of being forthright and transparent which pissed some folks off, but I believe as MLK said; "If you can't stand for something, you'll fall for anything".
One of the projects I became involved in was in Salem, the state capitol. I was invited by a State Legislator to participate in a workgroup, where we would design and craft legislation to deal with the issue. For months, I spent time driving to and from the capitol, sitting in meetings, and brain storming with others to come up with some comprehensive legislation that could become law. Finally, in 2009 the laws were passed, and I was comfortable knowing we'd accomplished our goal.
Last Sunday, in an article in the Oregonian, I found out that my comfort was mis-guided, and things weren't as peachy as I'd thought. The article follows...
State Rep. Sara Gelser said Oregon would do a better job protecting the elderly in long-term care facilities if Department of Human Resources complied with existing law. A state representative who sponsored legislation to protect the elderly and developmentally disabled from rape and other crimes says the Oregon Department of Human Services hasn’t been following that 2-year-old law.
Two stories in The Sunday Oregonian detailing failures in Oregon’s ability to safeguard elderly and mentally impaired adults in its 2,400 long-term care facilities sparked outrage and lively discussion among lawmakers, but Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said the most obvious solution is to get DHS to comply with existing law.
For one, DHS’ Seniors and People with Disabilities Division hasn’t been notifying long-term care facilities if applicants to job openings have a substantiated history of sexually, physically or financially abusing vulnerable adults in past jobs. But Gelser said HB 2442 — the law she pushed through in 2009 requires DHS to do so — with the exception of nursing homes.
Last week, in anticipation of The Oregonian’s investigation, DHS’ new acting director Erinn Kelley-Siel sent an email to all staff and lawmakers announcing the agency would begin notifying employers April 15 of the most serious sexual or physical offenders. It’s unclear whether Kelley-Siel and her staff were aware that the agency was already required to do so.
Kelley-Siel could not be reached for comment for this story, and a DHS spokesman said it could be weeks before she may have time to talk to the newspaper.
Gelser also said she noticed early last year that DHS wasn’t enforcing provision that requires long-term care facilities to tell residents and their guardians when DHS substantiates that a fellow resident has been abused. The law requires care facilities to give written notice. (Again, nursing homes, which care for as many as 12,000 vulnerable adults, are exempt. )
Administrators from the Seniors and People with Disabilities Division of DHS apparently were still unaware of the law because they told The Oregonian last week there was no such requirement.
“What we should be doing instead of racing to adopt new legislation is holding the department accountable for implementing legislation that we passed in 2009,” Gelser said, while also acknowledging that DHS staffing is “thin.”
The Oregonian’s review revealed a public safety net riddled with large holes. The newspaper reported that DHS investigators determined that the vast majority — or about 80 percent — of more than 350 reports of possible sexual abuse since 2005 in long-term care facilities couldn’t be substantiated. Often, the elderly or mentally impaired victims were found to be unreliable witnesses because they had dementia or were heavily medicated. But they exhibited signs of abuse that included sudden bouts of crying, victims declaring “it hurts” and bleeding from their genitals.
DHS investigators substantiated 73 of the 350-plus reports, but police said neither DHS or the long-term care facilities called them to investigate in at least 28 cases. The newspaper found evidence of 14 arrests and eight convictions.
DHS’ acting director, Kelley-Siel, said she plans to form a work group to better understand what’s happening.
After meeting with Kelley-Siel earlier this week, Rep. Carolyn Tomei — D-Milwaukie, who is co-chair of the House Human Services Committee — said she would schedule a hearing in May or June to look at the scope and severity of the problem.
“I obviously had no idea that it was going on,” Tomei said. “I’m horrified, but it had to be written. It will spur us on to do more.”
Tomei said she hopes the springtime hearing also will address other solutions. Suggestions include requiring national criminal background checks of all applicants to care facilities, eliminating exceptions in existing law for nursing homes and finding ways to ensure better reporting, investigation and ultimately prosecution of suspected abuse.
A national criminal check could cost about $30 per person. Idaho runs a national query, and the screening caught nearly 100 applicants with disqualifying pasts last year. Illinois has expanded its background checks in a different direction. In addition to checking criminal histories of employees, it checks for the criminal histories of residents — who along with caregivers and intruders, prey on the most vulnerable residents.
Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, has introduced a bill that could help uncover sexual abuse and aid prosecutions. Senate Bill 557 would require all hospitals to employ a certified sexual assault nurse examiner by the end of 2013 — or send possible sex abuse victims to hospitals that do.
That was a problem encountered by family members of 59-year-old Ruth DeLong Black. Their quest to bring the man they thought was responsible for raping Black to justice was featured in The Sunday Oregonian. The story recounted the failure of a doctor at Santiam Memorial Hospital — which employs no sexual assault nurse examiners — to conduct a complete rape exam, including internal swabs. A complete rape exam could have helped prove a case of rape — or helped clear the defendant’s name.
So, back to my thoughts... I had 3 questions that I wrote in the comment I told you about earlier. They are...
1.) Who is responsible for alerting DHS workers that there are new laws they are supposed to follow? I believe that would be the Director of DHS (Bruce Goldberg) and the Assistant Director who heads up Seniors and people with Disabilities (James Toews). Interestingly enough, both of these guys were reassigned to new jobs at DHS around 1 month ago. Hmm...
2.) Who is responsible in the legislature for making sure laws are known, understood, and followed? It has to be SOMEONE'S job!
3.) When it became clear that DHS wasn't following the law that was 2 years old, exactly whos' head(s) rolled? Please don't tell me a reassignment without a true reason why, fits that bill.