A New Hope nursing home and five employees have been cited by state regulators for brutal treatment of two elderly patients over several months last year, based largely on hidden-camera footage.

State investigators found that an 85-year-old patient with a severe cognitive disability was repeatedly punched in the face and stomach, causing visible cuts and bruises, while another patient had a bath towel thrown in her face, among other abuse. Other employees at St. Therese of New Hope were caught on video talking on their personal cellphones rather than providing necessary care, according to a just-released investigative report from the Minnesota Department of Health.

State investigators also found that members of the facility’s staff witnessed the abuse late last June but did not immediately report the incidents, a violation of state law.

Reports of abuse first surfaced last summer, but the state investigative document offers the most extensive look yet. The incidents led to the firing and criminal charges against two St. Therese employees, as well as the dismissal of another eight for failing to report the offenses or for using cellphones in patient rooms.

The report comes amid rising allegations of maltreatment at Minnesota senior homes and highlights the growing importance of hidden cameras in proving physical or emotional abuse in cases when frail patients have difficulty communicating. In this case, the video footage proved critical: The victims had cognitive disabilities and were unable to provide information, and staff members repeatedly denied the abuse.

Barb Rode, president and chief executive of St. Therese, which owns four senior living communities in the Twin Cities, said the incidents “have appalled and saddened management and staff,” and the facility has undertaken a comprehensive review of its operations to prevent future misconduct. Immediately after the incidents, St. Therese “reeducated” its staff on the state guidelines for reporting abuse of vulnerable adults and has continued more intense monitoring of staff through random audits and observations, among other measures, she said.

“These incidents violate not only the law, but the sacred trust families place in us,” Rode said.

The decision to install hidden cameras at St. Therese, which has 258 beds, stemmed from a series of suspicious injuries spotted by the daughter of the victims. Last summer, she had asked staff about several unexplained bruises and abrasions on her father, and she “was not provided any reasonable explanation,” according to the state report.

After installing hidden cameras, the daughter became so concerned about what she saw on video that she spent the night at the facility. In one incident, two employees were providing incontinence care for the elderly male patient, when one of them yanked him upward in the bed, jabbed at his chest with an open hand and punched him in the stomach with a closed fist. The other staff member did not immediately report the abuse after seeing it.

In a separate incident, an employee threw a towel at an 82-year-old female patient who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was cognitively impaired. When the patient threw it back, the staff member balled up the towel and again threw it forcefully at the patient’s face. Footage also shows a staff member jerking a water glass out of the patient’s hand in an abrupt manner, with the patient crying.

State investigators found that St. Therese leadership learned of the abuse in late June and immediately suspended two employees but failed to explore whether abuse had occurred in other units where these employees worked.

The state Department of Health received 2,867 allegations of abuse at state-licensed facilities for vulnerable adults in the 2014 fiscal year, up from 1,792 in 2011. Increasingly, hidden cameras, also known as “granny cams,” are being used to catch the abuse.

“The heartbreaking part of all this is that we have to wait for a vulnerable person to be abused, and to catch it on camera, before we feel like we can intervene,” said Amanda Vickstrom, executive director of the Minnesota Elder Justice Center in St. Paul.

 

@chrisserres