PORTLAND – An investigation by the Oregonian newspaper has found the vast majority of people suspected of sexually attacking residents in one of the state’s 2,300 nursing homes, assisted-living centers or other long-term care facilities are never arrested or prosecuted. And the state rarely penalizes facilities.
Since 2005, state workers who monitor the safety of the elderly and disabled received at least 350 reports of possible sexual abuse, ranging from unwanted kissing to rape.
The Oregon Department of Human Services determined that about 80 percent of those reports weren’t provable. In many cases, DHS investigators conclude that the victims are unreliable witnesses because they have dementia or are heavily medicated. Many can’t answer questions, although there were signs they had been assaulted.
DHS investigators determined there was enough evidence to find that 73 of the more than 350 reports of sexually inappropriate contact did occur. But in at least 28 of those confirmed cases police said no one called to report it.
And when police were called, sometimes days or months had passed since the abuse. The Oregonian found evidence of 14 arrests. Occasionally, criminal investigations faltered because police failed to interview witnesses or test key evidence. Of those cases in which an arrest was made, eight resulted in convictions.
The newspaper’s investigation found problems in long-term care facilities as well as at the DHS. And although the DHS allows the public to research nursing homes and other long-term facilities on its website, that database doesn’t include many reports of sexual abuse that were provided to the Oregonian.
Bruce Goldberg, who until last month was the director of the DHS and now heads the Oregon Health Authority, ordered scores of reports released earlier this year after meeting with the Oregonian.
But even with Goldberg’s direction to provide all records requested, the Oregonian did not receive reports that were provided to the newspaper by attorneys hired by families of victims.
DHS administrators said their record-keeping system makes it almost impossible to pull every case of sexual abuse against long-term care residents.
Sexual abuse in long-term care facilities needs more study, said Arthur Shorr, of Los Angeles, who consults for hospitals and nursing homes nationally on matters that include sexual violence against residents.
“It’s clear that it’s pandemic,” Shorr said. “It’s happening at a level and volume that’s almost hard to believe.”
Most states require criminal screenings of applicants who directly care for vulnerable residents. Oregon checks prospective caregivers for a criminal background only within the state, unless applicants say they’ve lived elsewhere. Then, the DHS requires a national FBI fingerprint background check.
On Friday, DHS acting director Erinn Kelley-Siel sent an email to legislators and DHS staff laying out steps she plans to take to address the issue. Among the changes, starting April 15, she said, the agency will begin notifying long-term care facilities about the histories of all long-term job applicants whom its investigators believe sexually abused or otherwise seriously mistreated residents in their previous jobs.
“Unfortunately, it is clear that there are gaps in our current system. Together, we must commit to closing those gaps.”