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Family Must Be On Watch For Signs of Abuse

Jan 1, 2002 | The Plain Dealer Are nursing home residents abused by their caregivers? Sometimes.

Is such abuse widespread? No.

But advocates for the elderly say that because impaired nursing home residents may not be able to report abuse or neglect, it's up to family members to be vigilant.

In 1998, there were 2,395 complaints alleging abuse, neglect or theft by nursing home workers. Of those, the state substantiated 107 complaints and sanctioned those employees.

Many of the abuse complaints have a common refrain: "He hit me, so I hit him back." One aide told regulators she shoved deodorant in a resident's mouth after the 89-year-old man punched her. Another aide admitted kicking a 92-year-old woman in both legs because the resident threw a glass of pop at the aide.

Occasionally, the abuse is even worse. A caregiver was convicted of raping a 78-year-old female resident at a Cincinnati nursing home in 1998.

Debby Allen, a Cleveland long- term care ombudsman, said family members should report any suspected abuse or neglect.

"Look under the sheets," she advised. "You're not going to be able to see bruises and bedsores without looking."

If something doesn't look right, Allen said, file a report with the state Health Department, the local ombudsman and the nursing home administration.

Nursing homes are required to investigate. Notifying the state Health Department also could help ensure that an abusive aide won't land in another home.

Even if the allegations prove to be unfounded, Allen emphasized that her office can help negotiate with the nursing home to make the resident feel safe.

"When you become dependent on others, the perception alone that that person doesn't care about you is important enough that you should look for other caregivers," Allen said.

No nursing home intentionally hires abusers. But a tight labor market and staff shortages nearing the crisis level make it hard for nursing homes to turn away willing workers - elevating the importance of diligent screening.

Ohio has required criminal background checks for nursing home workers since 1997. But it's not a fail-safe process.

For instance, a nurse aide with convictions for breaking and entering and petty theft, nonetheless found work at a Findlay nursing home.

The woman was banned from working in Ohio nursing homes in 1998 after the state determined that she had hit a 75-year-old resident.

"The whole purpose of the law was to keep residents safe," said former state Sen. Karen Gillmor, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the background check bill. "I wouldn't want my mother to be cared for by people who committed serious crimes or acts of violence."

Homes are required to keep a log of employee background checks. But Ohio Department of Health inspectors, who are in charge of enforcing the law, are not allowed to examine the actual background checks or supporting documents.

Sometimes, aides already are working in homes before the background checks are completed. And temporary agencies, a major source for filling vacancies caused by high turnover and a tight labor market, are supposed to perform background checks on the short-term caregivers they send to homes.

Kristine Arquilla, president of Gabriel Staffing Associates of Dayton, said her agency supplies homes with a synopsis of the background check. But she said many nursing facilities don't ask for the information, and "I know for a fact that there are agencies not doing the background checks."

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