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Arizona panel reviewing system to protect vulnerable adults

August 31, 2019

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona’s patchwork system for preventing and investigating abuse of vulnerable adults is being scrutinized following the discovery that an incapacitated patient at a health care facility gave birth last December after being raped.

The Arizona Capitol Times reports that a legislative advisory group of lawmakers, representatives of state agencies and advocacy groups recently started a review of the system.

The House Ad Hoc Committee on Abuse and Neglect of Vulnerable Adults headed by Democratic Rep. Jen Longdon of Phoenix is supposed to present a report by Dec. 31.

Longdon told members during the committee’s late August initial meeting that they should consider what their agencies and groups have changed since the abuse at the Hacienda Healthcare facility in Phoenix, what still needs to be changed and what the Legislature should do to help.

Committee member Jakenna Lebsock said the Legislature could review and consider changing laws regulating various agencies to streamline the investigative process.

Lebsock is the clinical administrator for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System — Arizona’s Medicaid program — and said laws designed to protect patient confidentiality can make it harder for agencies to work together to address abuse.

“Especially as it applies to privacy and confidentiality, if there is a way to ensure we can have those conversations cross-agency, I think that would be a good idea,” Lebsock said.

The state Department of Economic Security is a major provider of social services to many Arizonans, including 43,000 people with disabilities including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

Those people receive services through DES’ Division of Developmental Disabilities, while Adult Protective Services, part of a different DES division, investigates reports of abuse or neglect.

Adult Protective Services has 110 investigators and substantiates only a small fraction of the reports of abuse or neglect it receives.

One issue with taking and substantiating reports is making sure investigators and call center representatives are trained to communicate with people with various disabilities, said Jose de Jesus V. Rico, executive director of the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

“Having an email or an intake system online or even a phone call is not always enough,” he said.

If Adult Protective Services substantiates a report, a perpetrator can be listed in a registry cases about 1,400 people who have abused, neglected or exploited vulnerable adults.

The registry doesn’t coordinate with other states, so caretakers who may have abused vulnerable adults in other states or who move from Arizona to another state could slip through the cracks. Adult Protective Services also doesn’t investigate some reports from tribal nations.

If abuse or neglect occurred in a residential facility, the Department of Health Services would investigate the facility itself. That would include whether the staff had required background checks and whether the facility was capable of caring for a patient it had accepted.

A former Hacienda nurse, Nathan Sutherland, has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual abuse and abuse of a vulnerable adult.

Sutherland was fired after his arrest, has surrendered his nursing license and is awaiting trial.

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