Friday December 3, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- A former Pittsfield nursing home employee who assaulted an octogenarian with "severe dementia" won't see the inside of a jail cell if she avoids trouble.

Sandra E. Yankey, 46, received a suspended jail sentence and probation after pleading guilty Thursday in District Court to assaulting an 81-year-old Springside Nursing Home resident on Aug. 12.

Marie Jean Oppermann, a native and lifelong Stockbridge resident before coming to Springside, was traumatized by the incident, according to witnesses to the crime. Oppermann died a month later, but not from injuries suffered during the assault.

Springside came under scrutiny this summer following two separate assault incidents involving employees of the Lebanon Avenue facility. Officials with Genesis Healthcare Corp., Springside's suburban Philadelphia-based parent company, said they were isolated cases and corrective measures were taken, including the appointment of a new acting director.

Meanwhile, Oppermann's family had hoped Yankey would receive a jail sentence for her actions, which included punching the wheelchair-bound woman multiple times, ripping a tuft of hair from Oppermann's scalp, and verbally berating her throughout the assault.

But Judge Fredric D. Rutberg rejected the two-year jail sentence recommended by prosecutors, and instead gave Yankey a two-year suspended jail sentence and probation. That means Yankey, a convicted criminal, won't serve any jail time if she stays out of trouble and follows various court-ordered conditions.

Berkshire Assistant District Attorney Dana Parsons read aloud victim-impact statements from Oppermann's family on Thursday, but any hopes the family had of seeing Yankey serve time for the felony assault were dashed when Rutberg announced his sentence.

Oppermann's son, Kerry Oppermann of Lee, didn't return phone calls seeking comment, but another family member told The Eagle that Marie Oppermann died on Sept. 13.

Oppermann had lived on Willard Hill Road in the Interlaken section of Stockbridge, where she graduated from the former Williams High School in 1946, according to an obituary that appeared in The Eagle.

Oppermann was a deaconess and treasurer at the Interlaken Congregational Church and was very active in her community, according to her family.

Shortly after the Aug. 12 assault, another Springside employee was terminated for allegedly abusing an elderly patient. An employee who witnessed the incident, but delayed reporting it, also was fired.

That case, which is pending, involves allegations that a Springside caregiver told a blind elderly patient with dementia to shut up, then stuffed a sock in her mouth.

Springside employees have undergone additional training since the incidents, and the company's zero-tolerance-for-abuse policy is being strictly enforced, according to Genesis officials.

"In [Yankey's] case, we took immediate action in terminating the employee. From the beginning, we have cooperated fully with the [Pittsfield] Police Department and other authorities as they have handled this case," company spokeswoman Jeanne Moore said in a statement Thursday.

"The safety and security of all our patients at Springside is foremost on our minds. We know that this incident, which occurred several months ago, is not a reflection of the overall quality of care our center provides, but the result of unlawful conduct of a former employee," she added.

James M. Rivers, Springside's director at the time of the incidents, no longer works at the Lebanon Avenue facility, but Genesis officials declined to say if he was terminated. Moore said Patricia King, a registered nurse and member of the company's management team, is serving as acting administrator.

Moore, in a past statement to The Eagle, said Genesis routinely performs criminal background and licensing checks on employees. It remains unclear if Yankey's prior criminal conviction occurred before or after she was hired by Genesis. Company officials haven't revealed how long she worked at Springside.

A Springside supervisor and other employees witnessed Oppermann being assaulted by Yankey, police said. After hearing Yankey hurl expletives at Oppermann, the supervisor confronted her employee and tried to position herself between Oppermann and Yankey, who refused to leave the area. Yankey had to be forcibly removed the facility, police said.

Witnesses claimed Yankey punched Oppermann at least twice, grabbed her hair, and yanked the elderly woman's head back and forth. A "post-incident assessment" by Springside staff indicated the 81-year-old was "distraught," "expressed bewilderment" over the attack, and had "tears in her eyes."

A tuft of "torn hair" was found on Oppermann's lap, and she complained of pain in her left arm, according to the assessment.

To reach Conor Berry:

(413) 496-6249.