Frustrated by what they see as legislative foot-dragging, family members of abuse victims are intensifying their push for new laws to protect tens of thousands of vulnerable adults who live in senior care facilities across the state.
A grass roots coalition of abuse victims and their relatives, Elder Voice Family Advocates, descended on the State Capitol early Monday and distributed 1,850 summaries of maltreatment reports — including descriptions of beatings, sexual assaults and thefts — to legislators ahead of key hearings this week. The reports represent just a small fraction of the more than 20,000 allegations of maltreatment received by the Minnesota Department of Health each year from individuals and facilities across the state.
The family members said they are trying to combat the perception that abuse occurs only in a minority of senior homes, and want to show through government documents that dangerous incidents are widespread in every legislative district in the state.
The legislative action Monday was the culmination of weeks of data-gathering by the growing army of volunteers at Elder Voice. It's a grass-roots group that has bolted from obscurity over the past year to play a pivotal role in state efforts to reform Minnesota's troubled system for responding to violent crimes and other forms of abuse in senior homes.
Wearing their signature orange clothing, two dozen Elder Voice members fanned out across the Capitol buildings in St. Paul with heavy cardboard boxes filled with maltreatment reports, which they handed out to 150 legislators. The process of reading, sorting and mapping the reports by legislative district took hundreds of volunteer hours, and the printing costs nearly depleted Elder Voice's modest budget.
The project was also an emotional one for Elder Voice's mostly women volunteers, who all have parents or other loved ones who were mistreated in senior facilities.
"The [senior care] industry keeps saying this is rare," Anne Sterner, an Elder Voice member, said as she handed a pile of reports to state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. "It's not rare. It's systemic. And legislators need to take action on a global scale."
In recent weeks, senior advocacy groups such as Elder Voice and Minnesota AARP have grown increasingly concerned that elder care reform efforts are being weakened or delayed by the powerful nursing home lobby, and by incremental proposals that improve consumer protections but leave the existing regulatory system largely intact.
Elder Voice was part of a coalition of senior advocacy groups charged last November by Gov. Mark Dayton to come up with recommendations to improve the safety and care of the state's nearly 2,000 senior homes. Early this year, after weeks of meetings, they produced an ambitious blueprint of reforms. The 58-page report called for a new licensing system for the state's lightly regulated assisted-living industry, greater protections against arbitrary evictions from senior facilities, more stringent criminal sanctions against abusers, and a "private right of action" for lawsuits when vulnerable seniors are abused, among other reforms.
Within weeks, Dayton hailed the report and DFL lawmakers have introduced far-reaching legislation that contain many of its key recommendations, including a plan to require Minnesota's roughly 1,200 assisted-living facilities to be licensed by 2020. Because assisted-living facilities are currently not licensed, they are not subject to regular inspections and their residents do not have the same level of consumer protections as those who live in state-licensed nursing homes, according to an exhaustive report released last month by the state Legislative Auditor.
Despite bipartisan support, the legislation supported by elder care advocates missed the committee deadlines required to advance.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to debate more modest proposals that would help protect seniors but would leave the regulatory system in place. A bill being supported by state Senate Republicans, for instance, would strengthen the state's enforcement powers and lift the layers of secrecy that often surround investigations of maltreatment. Yet the proposal stops short of licensing assisted living, and instead would establish a 16-member task force to review state oversight of these facilities.
Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice, said relatives of abuse victims had their expectations raised by talk of systemic reforms, and are growing frustrated by the political process and what they see as legislators' indifference to the surge of elder abuse reports. In 2016, the state Health Department received 25,226 allegations of abuse and neglect in senior care facilities, a sevenfold increase since 2010. Yet only 3 percent of the allegations were investigated by state inspectors on site, according to a Star Tribune investigation.
For now, members of Elder Voice have vowed to persist with their campaign by taking their message directly to lawmakers and pushing to strengthen the bills that remain.
"We don't need more task forces and work groups. That's a delaying tactic," said Sundberg, as she walked through the Capitol with an armful of documents. "When we talk to families of abuse victims ... it's perplexing to them why lawmakers cannot take something seriously that is literally a life and death issue."