Allegations of physical and sexual abuse of nursing home residents frequently are not reported promptly. Local law enforcement officials indicated that they are seldom summoned to nursing homes to immediately investigate allegations of physical or sexual abuse. Some of these officials indicated that they often receive such reports after evidence has been compromised. Although abuse allegations should be reported to state survey agencies immediately, they often are not. For example, our review of state survey agencies’ physical and sexual abuse case files indicated that about 50 percent of the notifications from nursing homes were submitted 2 or more days after the nursing homes learned of the alleged abuse.
These delays compromise the quality of available evidence and hinder investigations. In addition, some residents or family members may be reluctant to report abuse for fear of retribution while others may be uncertain about where to report abuse. Although state survey agencies in the three states we visited had designated telephone numbers for reporting abuse, we found it difficult to identify these numbers in the government and consumer pages of local telephone books for some of the major and mid-size cities in these states. However, we did find a wide variety of other organizations that, by their name, appeared to be able to address abuse complaints, but, in fact, had no authority to do so.
Although CMS requires nursing homes to post these numbers, it is not clear that this ensures that residents and family members have access to this information when it is needed. In recognition of the need to better inform residents and family members about abuse reporting, the agency initiated an educational campaign in 1998. The campaign included development of a new poster with removable information cards containing appropriate numbers for reporting abuse. Although a pilot test was conducted, the poster has not been approved for distribution nationwide.
Few allegations of abuse are ultimately prosecuted. The state survey agencies we visited followed different policies when determining whether to refer allegations of abuse to law enforcement. As a result, law enforcement agencies were sometimes either not apprised of incidents or received referrals only after long delays. When referrals were made, criminal investigations and, thus, prosecutions were sometimes hampered because witnesses to the alleged abuse were unable or unwilling to testify. Delays in investigations, as well as in trials, reduced the likelihood of successful prosecutions because the memory of witnesses often deteriorated.
Safeguards to protect residents from potentially abusive individuals are insufficient at both the federal and state level. There is no federal statute requiring criminal background checks of nursing home employees nor does CMS require them. Although the three states we visited required background checks to screen potential nursing home employees, they do not necessarily include all nursing home employees nor are they always completed before an individual begins working. They also focus on individuals’ criminal records within the state where they are seeking employment. Safeguards at the state level are also insufficient. While nursing homes are responsible for protecting residents from abuse, survey agencies in the states we visited rarely recommended that certain sanctions-such as civil monetary penalties or terminations from federal programs-be imposed.
Twenty-six homes were cited for deficiencies related to abuse from the 158 case files we reviewed. The survey agencies recommended a civil monetary penalty for 1 home, while the remaining 25 nursing homes faced less punitive sanctions such as a requirement to develop corrective action plans. State survey agencies also play a role in preventing homes from hiring potentially abusive caregivers through the states’ nurse aide registries. These registries, among other things, identify aides that have previously abused residents. A finding of abuse should prevent a home from hiring an aide. However, delays in making these determinations can limit the usefulness of these registries as a protective safeguard. In addition, findings of abuse for several nurse aides could not be found in one state’s Web-based registry, compromising its protective value. As a result, aides who the state survey agency had already determined had abused residents could have been hired by unsuspecting nursing homes. Finally, none of the three states we visited had a safeguard in place-similar to a nurse aide registry-to professionally discipline those nursing home employees who do not need certifications or licenses to perform their duties, such as maintenance or housekeeping personnel.
Delays in Reporting Abuse Preclude Immediate Response by Law Enforcement or Survey Authorities
Most of the local police departments in the three states we visited told us that they were seldom summoned to a nursing home following an alleged instance of abuse. Several police officials indicated that, when they were called, it was sometimes after others had begun investigating, potentially hindering law enforcement’s ability to conduct a thorough investigation. Instead, state survey agencies were typically notified of allegations of abuse. However, these notifications were frequently delayed. Allegations of abuse may not be reported immediately for a variety of factors, including reluctance to report abuse on the part of residents, family members, nursing home employees, and administrators.
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