Posted: February 5, 2017 | Last Updated: February 8, 2017
There are few things worse than being sexually assaulted, and no worse type of assault than attacking people who are helpless or infirm. Sadly, sexual assault of the elderly is all too common. When the risks of being vulnerable, especially people with cognitive or memory problems, is combined with nursing home corporations more focused on profits than resident safety, your loved one is at very real risk.
According to research reported by the National Center on Elder Abuse, “[i]n one sample of sexually assaulted women age 55 and over, 33% of the women had physical disabilities and 52% had a psychiatric diagnosis.”[i] In another, anonymous group, “68% of 305 adult women with disabilities reported experiencing one or more types of abuse in the preceding year. Of those abused, 30% experienced sexual abuse in the preceding year.”[ii]
It is estimated that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation, or self-neglect reported to authorities, about five more go unreported.[iii]
Sexual abuse is any form of non-consensual sexual contact. Nursing home sexual abuse includes not just rape, but any unwanted or inappropriate touching, sexual coercion, sexually-explicit photography, and sexual harassment.
For example, a nursing home resident could be coerced, manipulated, tricked, or even drugged into unwanted sexual contact. Or a nursing home resident might be too frail, mentally incapacitated, or sick to give consent.
Sexual abuse can come at the hands of nursing home staff members, other residents, strangers (for example, visiting other residents, or trespassing at the facility), or even a family member.
Nursing homes are required by federal and Ohio regulations to ensure the staff they hire are safe, in part by mandatory background screening of potential employees. Nursing homes are also responsible for harms committed by their staff under most circumstances.
When a nursing home cuts corners—putting its profits over resident safety—by skipping background checks, not having sufficient staff to properly manage and monitor staff and resident safety, and hires the lowest-wage employees who cannot get better jobs, resident abuse can result. Given that nursing home staff, especially the lowest-paid staff, can have a lot of intimate contact with residents (bathing, dressing and undressing, helping go to the bathroom, hygiene, etc.), there is an opportunity for sexual abuse.
A nursing home that fails to properly screen employees, monitor and respond to possible issues, or properly supervise them, can be liable for negligence leading to resident sexual assault by nursing home staff. This may result from poor training and understaffing. When a nursing home fails to properly supervise employees or properly train employees on how to spot sexual abuse and sexual abuse occurs, the nursing home can be liable.
Nursing homes have to be aware of the risk of sexual assault of a resident by another resident, and help identify and prevent it. When one resident is unable to protect herself from sexual assault—physically or mentally—they may be an easy target for sexual abuse. Sometimes the assailant resident himself suffers from violent or sexual dementia or other mental issues making assault more likely. Nursing homes have to be aware of resident needs, weaknesses, and risks of being assaulted or committing an assault.
The nursing home can be held liable for negligence if such an assault occurred because the nursing home failed to supervise or train staff members adequately, or through understaffing.
It can be all too easy to walk into some nursing homes, particularly when there is inadequate security and understaffing. Sexual abuse by a stranger can occur when assailants recognize the failures and take advantage of them to access helpless older adults.
A nursing home that allows a stranger to access and assault residents through inadequate security, staffing, or training, has failed to protect its residents and should be held accountable.
Loved ones need to pay close attention to the cues of nursing home residents, especially if they cannot talk or lack the mental capacity to fully communicate.
Common signs of sexual abuse include:
Some of these—especially depression, anxiety, and other psycho-social changes—may be caused by other issues, including physical abuse or mental decline. But they merit follow-up questions with your loved one, staff, the director of nursing or administrator, or even a lawyer.
Sexual abuse victims may experience denial, disbelief that the assault occurred, or deny sexual abuse has occurred when talking to family members. A nursing home sexual assault victim needs rape crisis counseling just like any rape victim. Counseling helps victims regain their sense of security and deal with effects like depression or anxiety as much as possible.
Despite being one of the most heinous abuses committed against nursing home residents, sexual abuse is “also is the least detected, least reported, and least acknowledged type of abuse. However, thousands of elder Americans suffer from sexual abuse every year.”[iv]
Elderly people can be easier targets for sexual violators.
Elder sexual abuse perpetrators may target the elderly because they are unable to fight back from frailty, cognitive limitations, inability to speak, or the likelihood they may not be taken seriously if they report the assault. Many cases of elder sexual abuse involving nursing home staff are assaults of residents who may have dementia or a mental illness. Restraining and intimidating the elderly is much easier, too, especially when they do not have a family support system on site, as in a nursing home.
If a loved one in a nursing home is sexually abused, report the assault to the police. No matter what a nursing home administrator tells you about their own investigation, understand they work for the nursing home that hired the rapist. They have an interest in protecting the nursing home.
While nursing homes should have their own policy for addressing assault allegations—including nursing home rape or sexual assault—internally, this is not a criminal proceeding, and likely the most they can do is fire the person and report them to the police. It is critical family members get police involved, rather than run the risk of a nursing home stalling when the abuse is reported to police authorities (if at all).
The police have the ability to investigate and refer to a prosecutor to hold the assailant accountable criminally. The police and prosecutor will likely stop there.
A nursing home sexual assault lawyer can assist a family in reporting sexual abuse to the police and representing the family with the prosecutor. Beyond that, a nursing home rape lawyer can also help hold the nursing home accountable for hiring and continuing to employ a rapist through a civil investigation and, if warranted, lawsuit.
When a nursing home employee sexually assaults a resident, the administration contacts their insurance company / risk management people, who call a defense lawyer, and they prepare the standard “we’re so sorry, but don’t blame us” defense. Why? Because many states will allow nursing homes to argue they should not be responsible for an employee’s assault of a resident.
Some lawyers, who do not focus on protecting seniors, might stop there. They just don’t know any better.
The reality is that nursing homes know their residents are at significant risk of sexual assault. When they nonetheless put profits over safety by paying low wages, allowing frequent employee turnover, utilizing poor pre-hiring employee screening, and having inadequate monitoring of current employees, sexual assault becomes an inevitable outcome. It is only a matter of when.
A nursing home sexual assault lawyer like ours knows how to investigate these types of assaults to find the systemic nursing home mistakes that lead to these types of assaults. Staffing levels, background check procedures, monitoring, training and enforcement of policies, following up on complaints and signs of possible abuse: these are the issues we look at to determine whether the nursing home is responsible for what happened.
The physical injuries from sexual abuse are often the smallest part of the injury. The emotional and psychological scarring from sexual assault runs deep, even for people with limited cognitive function or memory. They are entitled to compensation for the harm that they have suffered.
Our nursing home sexual assault lawyers help hold nursing homes accountable and recover for those harms and losses. In Ohio, unfortunately, misguided “tort reform” has led to limiting the damages available for emotional harms. This is incredibly stupid in the context of sexual assault. But there should also be additional damages available to punish a nursing home for disregarding a resident’s rights or safety with a substantial probability of causing great harm—called punitive damages. Not all lawyers are prepared to investigate or prove up such damages.
Our nursing home lawyers are available to help stand up for the rights of your loved one—from investigation, to lawsuit, to trial—and help prevent future sexual abuse of nursing home residents by holding nursing homes accountable.
One of the best ways to prevent sexual abuse in nursing home residents is safe staffing levels and training. All too often corporate nursing home companies short staff facilities to cut costs and increase profits. This means fewer eyes and ears looking out for residents, helping recognize signs of elder sexual assault, or building relationships of trust with residents so the residents feel safe reporting concerns.
Ensuring the nursing home is adequately staffed is the first step toward protecting them from sexual abuse.
You should also pay close attention to the signs of sexual and physical abuse—listed above—and never assume a staff member is giving you the truth about how things like bruising or genital bleeding, infection, or irritation, of the vagina or rectum occurred. Those merit reporting and investigating. Even staff members who are not responsible or even aware of the assault may downplay issues, whether to prevent complaints or because they’re jaded about the process of aging.
As the Ohio Commission on the Prevention of Injury explained, this is a difficult and underreported issue, so you have to step out and do something you may feel uncomfortable about to get help:
Additionally, an elder abuse victim’s lack of capacity (e.g., dementia) may impair reporting, identification and prosecution. There is a lack of data about this issue as well. Under reporting may be exacerbated by victims’ reluctance to seek medical treatment for injuries or denial of the injuries existence due to dependence on perpetrators for financial support and general care. This dependence and social isolation may lead to a fear of retaliation if abuse is reported. Thus, much abuse goes unrecognized and the cycle of abuse continues. If you have any reason suspect sexual abuse of your loved one has or is occurring, a lawyer experienced investigating nursing home sexual abuse cases—including working with investigators and prosecutors—can be an important step to keeping them safe.[v]
There are some additional Ohio resources to report nursing home abuse, including sexual abuse:
[i] Research Brief on Abuse of Adults with a Disability, National Center On Elder Abuse, http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/Resources/Publication/docs/Disabilities_ResearchBrief_508web.pdf (last accessed July 5, 2016) (citing Eckert & Sugar, 2008).
[ii] Research Brief on Abuse of Adults with a Disability, National Center On Elder Abuse, http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/Resources/Publication/docs/Disabilities_ResearchBrief_508web.pdf (last accessed July 5, 2016) (citing Curry, et al., 2009).
[iii] The National Center on Elder Abuse at The American Public Human Services Association in Collaboration with Westat, Inc. (1998). The national elder abuse incidence study, http://aoa.gov/AoA_Programs/Elder_Rights/Elder_Abuse/docs/ABuseReport_Full.pdf.
[iv] Hawks, Robert A. (2006) “Grandparent Molesting: Sexual Abuse of Elderly Nursing Home Residents and its Prevention ,”Marquette Elder’s Advisor: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://scholarship.law.marquette.edu/elders/vol8/iss1/8
[v] Elder Abuse & Neglect, Report from the Ohio Commission on the Prevention of Injury (2003), available at http://www.publicsafety.ohio.gov/links/elder%20abuse.pdf.
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