Investigation uncovers troubling numbers of sexual assaults in nursing homes

elder-abuse-awareness-300x210It’s one of the more disturbing, revolting, and painful health care investigations put out by a news organization in recent times. It’s disheartening but it also demands action: So, what steps will federal, state, and local authorities take now that CNN has reported that thousands of sick, disabled, and defenseless patients, most of them women, have been sexually abused and assaulted in nursing homes in the last decade?

The broadcast network said that data, collected by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Community Living, show 16,000 sexual abuse complaints have been filed since 2000 over conditions at long-term care facilities (both nursing homes and assisted living facilities). Experts say there may have been more cases because sexual assault and abuse, due to stigmatization, often is un- or under-reported.

CNN, which turned up more than 380 sexual assault allegations in Illinois and more than 250 in Texas between 2013 and 2016, said it had analyzed U.S data in the same period, finding that “the federal government has cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for mishandling or failing to prevent alleged cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse at their facilities … And nearly 100 of these facilities have been cited multiple times during the same period.”

At least a quarter of the assailants were allegedly “aides, nurses, and other staff members, while a small portion involved facility visitors (including family members) or unknown assailants.” Most cases involved patients abusing other patients, but when caregivers or other staff were involved, the situations were “far more serious, involving allegations of forced intercourse, oral sex, digital penetration and other forms of sexual assault.”

CNN’s investigation turned up cases in which caregivers repeatedly were accused of raping and harming vulnerable elderly patients, then moving from facility to facility. Some staff acted in predatory, abusive groups, taunting and tormenting patients for extended periods.

Criminal cases can be difficult to build because victims may suffer from poor memory, cognitive decline, and dementia. They may be too fragile to play a part properly in the criminal justice system.

Although nursing homes and assisted living facilities are supposed to be tightly regulated, and, like most health care institutions, to operate under rigorous oversight, many fail to hire and retain the properly trained staff that quickly and appropriately acts to curb sexual predation, CNN has reported. Indeed, the broadcaster found that some facilities impeded reporting and investigations of patients’ sexual abuse.

I know from my practice how painful and heartbreaking nursing home neglect and abuse can be. Institutionalization of an aged relative is one of the more difficult decisions many American families face, especially with persistent and often-justified worries about the quality of care available in many nursing care facilities today. The CNN story went online even as the Kaiser Health News service published its own piece on the dearth of geriatricians, medically trained expert who can play pivotal roles in helping the elderly and their families navigate and better deal with the complex health issues of the old.

CNN makes the point that regulators need to crackdown on sexual abuse and rape in nursing homes, and they can do so in part by opening their eyes to the gravity of this problem and doing a much better job of tracking it, too. I fully agree. This is a tragic way to treat the elderly—and we need to heed the terrible message it says about us and our society if we neglect this scandal.

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