Two nursing assistants at a New Hope nursing home have been fired and arrested, and nine others suspended, after family members used hidden cameras to uncover physical abuse.

The two fired employees at Saint Therese of New Hope face possible criminal charges after they were caught on camera allegedly abusing at least two residents. The home suspended nine other nursing assistants on suspicion they failed to report the abuse and used cellphones in residents’ rooms, according to a July 1 letter from Saint Therese obtained by the Star Tribune.

Family members who spotted bruises and cuts on their loved ones installed hidden cameras in their rooms. After watching the video, taken over several weeks, New Hope police on June 23 arrested the two former nursing assistants. The Star Tribune does not generally name suspects until they have been charged.

“They did things that I would not want done to relatives of mine if they were in a nursing home,” said Steven Sondrall, the city attorney, who has reviewed portions of the video. “Inappropriate conduct definitely occurred.”

The extent of the alleged abuse remains unclear. New Hope police declined to share the video and an incident report or to release the names of the alleged victims. In a letter to residents’ family members, Saint Therese referred to the conduct as “abusive” and cause for “great concern,” but provided no details of the misconduct.

“Of course this conduct is intolerable and contrary to all we stand for, which is why the employees involved were dismissed,” wrote Saint Therese campus administrator Dinah Kmetz in the July 1 letter to family members.

Barbara Rode, president and chief executive at Saint Therese, did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Mother moved

Founded in 1968 and affiliated with the Catholic Church, Saint Therese owns four senior living communities in the Twin Cities. The Saint Therese foundation and its affiliates had revenue of $46 million in the 2014 fiscal year.

Frustrated by a lack of information, at least one family member already has taken action. On Monday, less than a week after learning of the alleged abuse, Sally Wright said she moved her ailing, 92-year-old mother to a new senior home in northeast Minneapolis.

Wright said she had in recent months spotted multiple bruises on her mother’s arms and legs; but had assumed they were the result of the inevitable bumping that occurs when she is moved in and out of her wheelchair and bed. But now, Wright said she is not sure the injuries were innocent. Her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, is incapable of recalling events that occurred more than a day earlier and often struggles to craft complete sentences.

“My God, it’s a terrifying feeling to have a parent with Alzheimer’s in a facility where there is alleged physical abuse,” Wright said. “She can’t tell me if something is not right, and I can’t be there 24 hours a day … so I was left with no choice but to move [my mother]. The trust was gone.”

A rising trend

Although some states place limits on electronic surveillance for privacy reasons, family members increasingly are turning to hidden, round-the-clock cameras as a way to catch neglect and abuse in senior homes. The cameras, often referred to as “granny cams,” can be so small they go unnoticed by staff members. In New York, the placement of hidden cameras in the bedrooms of nursing home residents in 2008 led the arrest of 19 nursing home staff; footage showed workers chatting and watching movies rather than checking on patients.

“It is certainly fair to say that [cameras] are one tool that can be used to protect your loved ones,” said Iris Freeman, board president of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center and adjunct professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

In this case, the hidden camera video footage was vital. The cuts and bruises were not proof of abuse, though family members felt they were too numerous to ignore, police said. Based largely on the videos, the New Hope police have recommended that both former nursing assistants be charged with mistreatment of residents.

The city attorney is awaiting the outcome of a state Department of Health investigation before filing charges.

“Without the video, it would have been a really difficult case,” said New Hope Police Capt. Scott Slawson. “This is a very vulnerable population and they are susceptible to injuries, and it’s always hard to say what the origins of some of those injuries are. … The video gives a very clear view of a slice in time.”

This marks the second time in less than a year that a Saint Therese facility has been investigated for alleged physical abuse. In early 2014, a staff member at Saint Therese at Oxbow Lake, in Brooklyn Park, slapped a resident who suffered from severe dementia. A witness to the incident told state investigators the staff member “laughed a little” after slapping the resident and then walked out of the room, according to a state report.

An investigation by the Department of Health found that the Saint Therese staff member, and not the facility, was responsible for the abuse.

 

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.

Twitter: @chrisserres