Lawmakers demand investigation into rape of 89-year-old at senior home

  • Article by: CHRIS SERRES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 10:27 AM

Lawmakers want Health Department to explain response to attack on 89-year-old woman. Policy changes may be sought, they said.

Two state lawmakers are calling on the Minnesota Department of Health to review its investigation into circumstances surrounding the brutal rape of an 89-year-old woman at a senior home in northern Minnesota.

The legislators, Reps. Tina Liebling of Rochester and Erik Simonson of Duluth, said they are concerned that the woman may have suffered unnecessary trauma because of failures in care in the days after she was sexually assaulted by a male caregiver at Edgewood Vista senior home in Hermantown.

The Health Department investigated the January 2013 rape early last year and found that the caregiver, and not the facility, was at fault. The caregiver, Andrew Scott Merzwski, 30, was sentenced last month to 53 months in prison.

Liebling, chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, said Wednesday she had asked the department for more information about how the woman was treated after she reported the rape, as well as why the facility was not cited for abuse or neglect. Liebling added that the Legislature should consider action this session if the inquiry finds gaps in the state’s licensing standards for senior homes.

“This is the kind of thing that never should happen in this state or anywhere,” Liebling said. “It’s indefensible, and we need to know what the facts are.”

Simonson said he was “appalled” by the rape and allegations that the facility may have impeded the investigation by disputing the woman’s story when speaking with health professionals in Duluth who were treating her.

“Is there any conclusive evidence that the managing staff at [Edgewood Vista] mishandled the case, at any point during the investigation process?” Simonson wrote in a Tuesday letter to Dr. Ed Ehlinger, state health commissioner.

A department spokesman said the agency is “reviewing the lawmakers’ concerns and will respond directly to them as soon as possible.”

A spokesman for Edgewood Management Group, a Grand Forks, N.D., company that owns the Hermantown facility, said the company’s chief executive was traveling and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Since the case came to light, advocates for sexual assault survivors and vulnerable adults have expressed shock at how the elderly woman, who has not been identified, was treated after she reported being raped. Instead of receiving immediate treatment, the woman was held for nearly three days in a locked psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. Attorneys for the woman have alleged that administrators at the seniors home withheld information from medical professionals and even suggested that the sex was consensual.

Merzwski admitted to entering the woman’s bedroom and giving her medications that would impair her ability to think before having sex with her. A nurse who examined the woman days later said the vaginal laceration resulting from the rape was the largest she had ever seen in her six years in the field.

The Health Department initiated an investigation 10 days after the assault, finding that Merzwski “did not follow professional standards in exercising professional judgment when [he] had sexual intercourse with the client.” Edgewood was cited only for failing to immediately report the abuse; it did not notify local authorities until two days after the rape.

In April 2013, Edgewood was cited a second time for not immediately reporting an incident of harm. In the second case, a resident of the facility was found lying on the pavement in a “pool of blood,” wearing pajamas and a robe.

“Their actions, not only their failure to report, warrant further investigation,” said Roberta Opheim, the state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.

The Health Department receives thousands of complaints annually of abuse or neglect in health care facilities, but only one in 12 are actually investigated. Of the cases investigated, slightly more than one in five result in substantiated findings of misconduct.

Since 2011, the state has received 15 allegations of rape, fondling and other sexual abuse at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, according to the department.

Liebling said she wants to know whether the agency has “enough tools at their disposal” to hold senior care facilities accountable in abuse cases. “If it requires legislative action,” she said, “then we will take a look at doing that.”

 

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres

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