Families seeking to prevent abuse or neglect of their loved ones in nursing homes by using hidden cameras, or "granny cams," would face more restrictions under recommendations issued this week by a state work group.

The 17-member group was asked to advise the Legislature on ways to regulate the growing use of hidden cameras and other electronic surveillance equipment in senior care facilities, while balancing privacy rights with efforts to deter abuse.

It began meeting in June, following several well-publicized cases in which cameras substantiated reports of abuse and neglect at local nursing homes.

The group recommends that electronic monitoring should be allowed only with the informed consent of all the residents in the room under surveillance (or a legal representative if the resident is not competent to do so).

In addition, any resident being monitored should have the right to place limits on when and where the monitoring takes place and to have the device turned off for privacy reasons. And facilities should be prohibited from retaliating against residents who use hidden cameras, according to the work group's final report.

"This is a huge issue and it should not be viewed lightly," said Jean Peters, a member of the work group and an outspoken proponent of hidden cameras since her family used one to detect abuse of their mother. "The [senior care] industry doesn't want cameras because they're afraid of getting sued, and because they can't possibly provide what they promise."

Currently, Minnesota law is silent on the use of electronic surveillance in senior care facilities. As a result, families suspecting abuse or neglect can install cameras, which cost as little as $80 and can be as small as hockey pucks, inside rooms in senior facilities. Many of the cameras can transmit live feeds to smartphones, enabling relatives to monitor the care of their loved ones remotely.

In many cases, families install the cameras when they detect bruises, weight loss or other visible signs of maltreatment, but have no way to prove it — and find their concerns are ignored, say elder care advocates. Increasingly, the footage is also being used by law enforcement officials and state regulators to substantiate allegations of abuse and, in some cases, bring criminal charges.

Last year, a woman who spotted cuts and bruising on her father installed hidden cameras at a large nursing home, St. Therese of New Hope. The footage showed two caregivers repeatedly punching her father in the face and stomach. It led to criminal charges against the two employees and the dismissal of others for failing to report the abuse. And a year ago, an aide at a Hopkins senior home was arrested and charged with two counts of assault after videos from a hidden camera showed her repeatedly hitting an elderly patient in the head.

Suzanne Scheller, a Champlin attorney who specializes in abuse and neglect in senior homes, said Minnesota's lack of formal regulations is beneficial for families. "It gets the attention of the powers that be, and allows the family member to feel some sense of empowerment," she said.

Yet Scheller and other advocates fear the new recommendations may be used to create rules and restrictions that impede their use. In Illinois, for instance, a nursing home resident must consent to the use of a camera before it can be installed and must notify the facility of intent to use electronic monitoring. Other states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, require that a notice be posted when such surveillance is occurring. At least one state is actually encouraging their use. The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General provides free surveillance cameras for up to 30 days to anyone who suspects in-home abuse

The work group, which included state health officials, elder care advocates and industry representatives, failed to reach a consensus on the issue of requiring notice to the facilities. Families and elder care advocates have strongly opposed mandating notification, arguing that cameras are typically used as a last resort when all other attempts at communicating concerns about maltreatment have failed.

"Do we as a state really want to say that we would elevate the right to privacy over suspected maltreatment?" asked Scheller. "That is the tension."

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