A remarkable change has occurred within a relatively short amount of time when it comes to a dangerous, all-too-common crime: domestic abuse.
Within the past two decades, law enforcement has widely moved from an antiquated hands-off approach to aggressively investigating threats to partners and children. It is no longer acceptable for officers or communities to look the other way because it’s a “family matter” or because this crime has historically been difficult to prosecute.
Tragically, the strides toward justice for this vulnerable group have yet to be matched when it comes to crimes against another group at risk of abuse — the elderly. As a powerful Star Tribune series published last week reveals, those who live in state-licensed senior care centers, such as nursing homes and assisted-living complexes, remain second-class victims, with crimes too infrequently leading to prosecution or serious consequences for the facilities.
The series by Chris Serres, with photos by David Joles, has performed a valuable public service by spotlighting this unconscionable disparity in the criminal justice system. Minnesota led the way nationally in modernizing domestic-abuse investigations to better hold perpetrators accountable — reforms were often dubbed “blueprints” by local police departments. It ought to seize the chance to do so again when it comes to safeguarding seniors.
The five-part series inspired heartache in anyone with an aging loved one. In 2016, there were more than 25,000 “allegations of neglect, physical abuse, unexplained serious injuries and thefts in state-licensed homes for the elderly.”
And while more-detailed information — such as how many of these incidents resulted in hospitalization — were not available, the number of reports is disturbing, even considering that recent changes had made it easier to report abuse. About 60,000 Minnesotans live in assisted-living facilities, with residents of nursing homes numbering under 30,000. Potentially, up to 28 percent of these residents may have been put in harm’s way or harmed by staff or residents.
The series made it clear that state regulators have lacked the resources and the expertise to investigate abuse, and frustratingly, the backbone to publicly call out facilities where egregious or repeat incidences have occurred. Families also have raised legitimate concerns about access to investigation data, and a remedy is required. Consumer information for those researching a facility’s safety record should be more comprehensive and easier to find.
All of these issues should be addressed by the task force that Gov. Mark Dayton laudably called for last week. But work on this reform should top its agenda: increasing the number of abuse cases that are prosecuted in the criminal justice system vs. handled administratively by the state.
Minnesota prosecutors sounded the alarm in the series on how few elder-abuse cases actually reach their desks for charging consideration, suggesting that case information may not be relayed by officers called to the scene or that other communication breakdowns have occurred. The U.S. Department of Justice has also raised this concern nationally. “A significant number of reported cases do not progress through the criminal justice system due to a lack of familiarity with effective investigation and prosecution strategies,” the agency’s National Institute on the Prosecution of Elder Abuse warns.
The criminal justice system isn’t an appropriate remedy in situations where patients with dementia harm another person, a tragic situation Minnesotans saw with the 2009 incident in which former pro wrestler Verne Gagne fatally injured another resident of his care facility. But staffers or family who abuse seniors, or those who run facilities that didn’t take proper precautions for potentially violent patients, should face charges or heavy fines more often. The message must come through loudly and clearly that there will be a price paid if this happens.
At the federal level, the Trump administration should also jettison a proposal to force nursing-home residents and their families to give up the right to sue facilities. If regulators and the criminal justice system can’t or won’t hold abusers accountable, consumer lawsuits are another tool to do so.