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Patient Abuse a Problem in Homes

October 26, 1998

BOSTON (AP) _ When a comatose woman gave birth last week, apparently after being raped in a nursing home, local health officials said they had never seen anything like it.

But rapes and assaults of nursing home residents, easy prey for sexual predators, are not unheard of. The same week the Massachusetts woman gave birth, two catatonic women were allegedly sexually abused in their beds in a New York City hospital.

The week before, the state of Michigan closed a Detroit nursing home after an investigation found that one resident drowned in a bathtub of scalding water and another was allegedly raped.

Critics say the physical abuse of frail and ill patients continues because they are often a forgotten population and there are no uniform regulations governing the homes.

``There isn’t an appropriate way to monitor nursing homes,″ said Sara Foer, spokeswoman for the American Nurses Association, which is developing its own credentialing program for nursing homes.

The most recent statistics available show there were 548 complaints of sexual abuse between Oct. 1, 1995, and Sept. 30, 1996, according to a draft report by the U.S. Administration on Aging.

Faith Fish, New York state ombudsman for nursing homes, said sexual abuse is one of the most serious problems nursing homes have. She noted that nursing home patients are not all elderly people and include a fair number of young, seriously disabled women.

``Sexual issues and problems in nursing homes are a real serious problem and no one wants to talk about them,″ Fish said. ``It’s more prevalent than I realized it was.″

She said there are cases of employees abusing patients and of patients committing the acts.

In Maryland, a recent audit of eight nursing homes by the Office of the Inspector General found 51 employees had criminal records, many for serious offenses.

There are 1.6 million people living in 16,700 nursing homes in the United States, and by 2030, the number of Americans age 85 and over is expected to double.

Enforcement on many fronts has begun to pick up since last July, when President Clinton, expressing concern over patient abuse, announced a crackdown on nursing homes and states that do a poor job of regulating them.

New York state recently enacted ``Kathy’s Law,″ which created a new felony-level crime of ``abuse of a vulnerable elderly person.″ The legislation was spurred by the rape of a comatose woman by an aide in a suburban Rochester health center. The woman later gave birth.

The rape was similar to the case at the Town Manor Nursing Home in Lawrence, where a 24-year-old woman who had been comatose for five years gave birth to a girl last Friday.

No one at the home, which has about 90 patients, had any idea she was pregnant until several days before she went into labor.

Prosecutors are trying to identify a suspect. They will ask men who worked around the woman over the past five months to produce DNA samples.

The baby, born about 14 weeks premature and weighing just under 2 pounds, remained in critical condition Monday.

``This is a tragic crime,″ said Phyllis Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Albuquerque-based Sunrise Healthcare Corp., which owns Town Manor. She said the company is eager to participate in the investigation.

Scott Parkin, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, representing 5,000 not-for-profit nursing homes and senior housing facilities, said the Lawrence situation was an isolated event, and he noted that abuse can also happen with people being cared for by home health aides.

``You hope within a group setting the risks are lessened, that there are others around or people who will report them,″ he said. ``It’s even scarier for people on their own.″

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