Dozens of elderly abuse victims and their family members urged lawmakers on Wednesday to overhaul the state's system for regulating senior care homes, saying current laws are poorly enforced and perpetrators are not adequately punished.

Their calls for action came during an emotional, two-hour Senate committee hearing on the state's handling of elder abuse complaints in senior homes. Leaders of the committee called the hearing to give victims and their relatives an opportunity to tell their stories of abuse.

The hearing follows reports of multiple breakdowns in the state's system for investigating maltreatment at senior care facilities that serve about 85,000 Minnesotans. A five-part Star Tribune series last November documented that hundreds of incidents of criminal abuse, including physical and sexual assaults, go uninvestigated each year by the state agency charged with protecting the elderly in senior homes.

"Unfortunately, we've heard many reports over the past several months of abuse and neglect toward our most vulnerable citizens, including the elderly, and these reports have fallen through the cracks because of an ineffective state bureaucracy," Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, said in a statement.

One after another, relatives of abuse victims from across the state recounted their anguish at discovering abuse and neglect of loved ones. Some brought graphic photos of injuries and untreated wounds, while others described being kept in the dark for months after reporting assaults. Still others described being verbally abused and threatened with retaliation by facility staff when they complained.

"This situation has reached code red," said Kristine Sund­berg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, a grass-roots coalition of family members advocating for better senior care.

Lisa Papp-Richards of Bemidji wiped away tears as she showed graphic photos of a purplish-red infection on her 75-year-old mother's ankle, left untreated so long by nursing home staff that her bone was exposed and, she said, eventually had to be amputated. When Papp-Richards installed a camera in her mother's room last spring to monitor her care, the nursing home seized the camera, prompting the family to call the Bemidji police and report a theft.

Papp-Richards said a nurse at the nursing home repeatedly called her vulgar names in front of her mother when she complained about poor treatment.

"I can handle retaliation myself, but I can't handle it when it involves my own mother," said Papp-Richards, who owns a child care center in Bemidji. "Retaliation is a very big deal in these facilities."

As Kent Edwards testified, he placed a box holding the burial ashes of his mother, Suzanne, and her photo before him on the table. Edwards described verbal and emotional abuse he said she suffered last year by two nurse's aides at Lino Lakes Assisted Living. When Edwards requested details from police and the Minnesota Department of Health, he was told the information was confidential until an investigation was complete.

Edwards did not discover the horrific nature of the abuse until nearly five months after it occurred, when an employee sent him videos taken on her cellphone. They showed the two nurse's aides repeatedly mocking and threatening his mother, who suffered from dementia. One taunted his mother about how she was going to die and even threatened to set her on fire with a cigarette lighter.

"By the facility, police, court system and the state … I was given zero information," Edwards said.

Responding to pressure from family members, state officials released a batch of data Monday showing they have made dramatic gains in reducing a giant backlog of unresolved complaints of elder abuse, which had created long delays in response times. An intense triage effort by state officials has reduced that backlog by nearly 80 percent, from 3,147 complaints to just 712, since the start of the year.

The backlog had developed in recent years because of a surge of maltreatment complaints and long-standing inefficiencies at the Office of Health Facility Complaints (OHFC), a division of the state Department of Health.

Still, senior care advocates and several prominent lawmakers insist that problems extend far beyond bottlenecks at the OHFC, and they are pushing for much broader reforms to state laws for protecting seniors. A state working group, led by families of elder abuse victims and senior advocates, released a detailed report last month calling for increased oversight of the lightly regulated assisted-living industry and tougher penalties against perpetrators and facilities where serious abuse occurs.

These advocates maintain that Minnesota's laws have failed to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape of residential care for seniors. Minnesota is among just a handful of states that does not license assisted-living centers, even though these facilities have begun catering to more vulnerable residents who are frail or have serious medical conditions. About 60,000 Minnesotans currently live in assisted living, compared to fewer than 28,000 living in nursing homes, which are more closely regulated.

"We cannot let the senior living and care industry continue to do business as usual," Sundberg said. "Business as usual will only result in more suffering and premature, painful deaths."

Housley said she plans to introduce a broad elder abuse bill this session that would address multiple gaps in the state's current system. The legislation would make abuse reports and investigations more readily available to victims and their families and strengthen the rights of older residents in senior care facilities, she said. Her legislation would also enshrine the rights of Minnesota families to use electronic surveillance in the rooms of their loved ones.

"It's apparent that we do have a failing state system here," Housley said.

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