Assaults cast pall on nursing homes

Posted
Sunday April 24, 2011

PITTSFIELD -- One conviction for rape, two for assaults, two more cases in the court system, and half a dozen terminated employees at two Pittsfield nursing homes over the past 21 2 years.

Not the sort of statistics that nursing home officials would include in pamphlets promoting their facilities.

Making matters worse, two of the cases involve a pair of Pittsfield nursing home employees who had prior criminal records when they were hired.

According to a federal report released last month, the Pittsfield cases aren't unique: More than 90 percent of U.S. nursing homes employ at least one convicted criminal, and roughly 5 percent of all nursing home employees have at least one criminal conviction.

As local nursing homes grapple with a spate of assault cases in recent years, law enforcement officials say lax supervision of employees and patients contributes to the problem.

"The most important thing you can do to protect nursing home patients is to make sure your staff is adequately monitored and supervised. It's not who you hired -- it is protecting your patients," said Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, a proponent of criminal background checks for workers in the long-term-care industry.

Nursing home administrators in the local cases say they conducted thorough background checks, but the employees' criminal histories apparently went undetected.

Even Capeless acknowledges that background checks aren't a silver bullet against elder abuse.

"They do not solve the problem of abuse of senior citizens. [If a nursing home] runs a background check and it turns out the employee has no criminal record, that doesn't mean they aren't going to potentially abuse somebody," he said.

Because Massachusetts only requires nursing homes to check for criminal records inside the commonwealth, convicted criminals from other jurisdictions can -- and do -- slip through the cracks. In some cases, they land generally low-paying nursing home jobs caring for the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable members of society.

Because Massachusetts only requires nursing homes to check for criminal records inside the commonwealth, convicted criminals from other jurisdictions can -- and do -- slip through the cracks. In some cases, they land generally low-paying nursing home jobs caring for the elderly, who are among the most vulnerable members of society.

Janet C. Wells, director of public policy for the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, said a mandatory national background-check program would help mend holes in the existing patchwork system, in which states have different screening standards for nursing home workers.

"Most nursing homes don't do national background checks," said Wells, whose organization advocates for tighter regulations to prevent patient abuse. "You hear of a lot of cases where people with criminal backgrounds move from state to state undetected. The whole purpose of the national background-check program is to enable states to set up a system where they do FBI background checks."

The nation's new health-care law includes provisions for establishing a standardized national system, but the elective program requires participating states to come up with matching dollars in order to receive the federal funding.

Massachusetts isn't among the 10 states that have opted into the pilot program, which is funded by a federal grant. Officials with the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the situation.

Dianne De La Mare, vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Health Care Association, said the Washington, D.C.-based nursing home advocacy organization has pushed for a "national background check system" for more than 20 years.

"We have encouraged the federal government to help us with the cost," she said, adding that a national program would create a universal safety net and eliminate haphazard background checks by states.

Arlene Germain, president of the Massachusetts Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, said the Bay State should make participation in the federal pilot program a priority.

"The majority of [nursing home employees] are wonderful, dedicated people. We only want protections for this vulnerable population, and this is one area that can be maintained easily and needs to be done," she said.

Last month's release of the federal report by the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 92 percent of U.S. nursing homes employ at least one convicted criminal.

According to the department, 33 states require nursing homes to perform criminal background checks in their own states, while 10 states require both state and federal checks. The remainder do not have specific requirements.

The federal report revealed that most crimes committed by current nursing home employees involve drugs, thefts or various property offenses, although some were violent in nature.

The report does not specify the context of the crimes or identify victims, which means there's no way to verify if nursing home patients are among the victims.

In Pittsfield, officials at Hillcrest Commons Nursing & Rehabilitation Center said they were unaware that former employee Jerald H. Sullivan had a criminal record in Vermont when he was hired as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in 2009.

Sullivan, 54, is accused of raping an elderly patient in her room at the Valentine Road facility. Since the alleged Jan. 21 incident, he has been fired from Hillcrest, indicted by a Berkshire grand jury, and arraigned in Berkshire Superior Court, where he denied the charge. Sullivan is being held at the county jail in lieu of $20,000 bail.

Pittsfield police said a Hillcrest employee walked in on Sullivan while he was sexually assaulting the patient. This case follows a similar 2008 incident involving former Hillcrest employee Sean Murphy, who is serving up to 10 years in state prison for raping an elderly female resident on July 4 of that year.

Pittsfield police said a Hillcrest employee walked in on Sullivan while he was sexually assaulting the patient. This case follows a similar 2008 incident involving former Hillcrest employee Sean Murphy, who is serving up to 10 years in state prison for raping an elderly female resident on July 4 of that year.

The rape cases have prompted Berkshire Healthcare Systems (BHCS), Hillcrest's parent company, to take stronger steps to prevent abuse at the facility.

"We will do criminal background checks in all 50 states," Jack Warren, BHCS' regional director of operations, said in a recent interview with The Eagle.

"We don't care if it's too costly or too much of a burden. We are going to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said, adding that Sullivan came highly recommended. "His reference checks were shining."

John Krol, media relations manager for BHCS, said Thursday that his company also is in the process of implementing a policy that will ensure that male caregivers always are accompanied by a female caregiver when attending to a female resident.

As for criminal background checks, access to Massachusetts' Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) database typically has been limited to nursing homes, schools and child-care centers, while private-sector employers traditionally had to apply for copies of criminal records.

But changes to the CORI law now allow more employers, organizations and licensing authorities, among others, to pay to access criminal records online, while precluding employment applications from inquiring about criminal records. Employers may ask that question during a job interview, however.

"No one ever got hurt by a background check," Capeless said. "We're talking about a very vulnerable population here."

Capeless said he would like to see CORI information disseminated more widely.

"These are public records. They are a record of proceedings in public court," he said.

At the Springside of Pittsfield nursing home -- the scene of three assault investigations since last summer involving female workers in their mid-40s -- the facility's parent company has acknowledged that the Lebanon Avenue nursing home inadvertently hired someone with a criminal record.

According to Genesis HealthCare Corp., the employee's record was entered under a different name and went undetected when the Pennsylvania-based parent company conducted a background check before hiring the employee, who was not identified.

Former Springside worker Sandra A. Yankey was convicted late last year of assaulting an elderly Springside patient on Aug. 12, 2010. Court documents show the Pittsfield woman had a criminal record at the time of her August arrest, but they do not indicate the nature of those crimes, including when and where they occurred.

Yankey was convicted in December 2010 of assaulting 81-year-old Marie Jean Oppermann, who died a month after the incident, but not from injuries suffered during the assault. Judge Fredric D. Rutberg gave Yankey a suspended jail sentence and probation for assaulting the woman, who suffered from "severe dementia," according to police reports.

The incident was the first of several black eyes for the Pittsfield nursing home. Since then, another former Springside employee has been convicted of assaulting a patient, while a third abuse case is pending against a former Springside contract worker.

Jodi LeBrake, a certified nursing assistant, received a six-month suspended jail sentence and probation after admitting to assaulting a 72-year-old female patient on July 23. The incident wasn't reported until late August, however, resulting in the termination of LeBrake and another employee who witnessed the assault. That employee was fired for failing to report the incident, officials have said.

Genesis spokeswoman Jeanne Moore has declined to answer specific questions about Yankey's tenure at Springside, including when the Pittsfield woman was hired.

Yankey was "terminated on the spot" and escorted from the property after the incident, according to court records, while LeBrake was fired only after the alleged abuse came to light later. In the Yankey incident, the assault was witnessed by several Springside staff members, including a supervisor who immediately intervened to help Oppermann, authorities have said.

In a statement to CBS News, which reported on the alleged Pittsfield abuse cases in a national story, Moore said of an unidentified employee: "Criminal activity under a former name was not reflected in the background check required by Massachusetts law."

The pending assault case against Deborah Baribeau -- a Berkshire Medical Center phlebotomist contracted to draw blood from Springside patients -- is scheduled for a May 4 pretrial hearing in District Court.

Baribeau is accused of roughing up a 59-year-old stroke patient while drawing blood from her. Baribeau immediately was barred from the nursing home, officials have said.


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