There appears to be a rise in the number of sexual assault and sexual abuse cases reported against one of our most vulnerable groups – the elderly. Over my next few blogs, I will discuss this issue including what appears to be an increase in the problem, signs of such abuse, support systems and counseling in place for victims.
The stories of elder sexual abuse can be found in newspapers across the nation. These assaults occur in the home, nursing facilities, rehabilitation centers and hospitals. The acts can be perpetrated by program staff, visitors, strangers off the street and even other residents.
Let’s look at some of these reports:
In Rhode Island, a 74-year-old nursing home resident was charged with first degree assault on an 80-year-old female resident after it was witnessed by a program staff member. The person arrested, Francis Kinsey, was out on bail for first and second-degree child molestation stemming from an incident in 2012.
In Connecticut, a 26-year-old man was arrested after at least one sexual assault at a nursing home there. Omar Sharif was charged with second degree sexual assault on a physically helpless victim.
A Fall River, Massachusetts man was accused of raping two residents at a New Bedford nursing home where he was a licensed practical nurse. Jacob King, age 57, stated that he “never forced myself” on the victims but at least one of them reported being assaulted in the bathroom.
In California, a 77-year-old cancer survivor with a colostomy bag stated that while sleeping in a chair, she was awakened by someone grabbing her head and raping her. During the assault, the victim stated that the man whispered to her that she should “relax and enjoy it” and even offered her a glass of water. She did not report the first rape out of shame, but the perpetrator returned two weeks later to rape her again. The perpetrator was caught and convicted of raping 14 women over a five-year period.
In Florence, Alabama, a 21-year-old nursing assistant was arrested and charged with sodomizing a male patient.
In Queens, New York, a male patient admitted to a narcotics unit escaped and dressed in hospital scrubs and sexually assaulted a 79-year-old woman in her hospital bed. The woman’s daughter stated that her mother “was never the same after that” and wondered if the senility, which seemed to come on “quickly”, was the result of the rape. She added, “I live with the guilt because I put her in the hospital originally.” She also bemoaned the lack of support groups and organizations to address the problem
Information from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for
Community Living states that over 16,000 cases of sexual abuse have been reported over the last 15 years but experts state that the number of cases that occur are woefully under reported.
When I speak with people unfamiliar with the care of the elderly, they are surprised to find out that such a problem exists. Although they seem to know instinctively that small children in care are victims of such activity, for some reason they seem to take a different view when it comes to seniors.
Well, it appears that there is a larger societal view that elderly patients can protect themselves from such assaults and in some cases, people still equate sexual violence to sexual attractiveness or in the cases of elderly perpetrators, see seniors as asexual and incapable of committing sexual assault.
Because of this thinking, research into the problem is still young with information still being gathered and reviewed. But there are several characteristics that have been identified;
Perpetrators of such abuse tend to be male and may be volunteer care givers or paid care givers.
70% of reported abuse occurs in nursing homes (before we give nursing homes a bad rap, it is important to point out that the number is high since there are mandated reporters who report these acts. The numbers of assault among seniors living at home are probably not adequately represented due to a lack of oversight).
The abuser is the primary caregiver 80% of the time
67% of elder sexual perpetrators were family members
76% of elder sexual abuse victims have had the incident witnessed by another
Elderly women are 600% more likely to be victims of abuse than elderly men
A story out of the midwest regarding a sexual assault in a nursing facility.
Although most states have mandatory reporting laws, nearly all authorities agree that the problem is under-reported for many reasons including:
The inability to report due to physical or cognitive functioning levels
Many are so dependent upon the caregiver that they fear losing that person who provides them with care and basic needs
They may fear retaliation from the abuser.
If they are living in their home, they fear being placed in an institutional setting if they report the abuse
Although I mentioned shame earlier, it appears that the shame is magnified when the abuser is a family member. They also fear alienation from other family members because of reporting the abuse.
Sometimes abuse reports are made but not taken seriously by the facility or the authorities and the elder refuses to cooperate which allows the perpetrator to continue with the abuse
What is sexual abuse of the elderly?
Elder sexual abuse is the unwanted or non-consensual physical or sexual contact with an elderly person. The abuse also included making such contact with an elderly person who is confused or unable to give consent. Whether it is just “touching” an elder or a significant assault such as rape, it is sexual abuse and needs to be reported.
Some types of sexual abuse include:
Unwanted touching, groping and massaging
Sexual assault and battery
If an elderly person is the victim of such abuse, there are physical and psychological warning signs of this act. It is important that anyone providing care to an elderly person be aware of the physical signs which include:
Unexplained sexually transmitted infections (again, training staff or caregivers on the signs and symptoms of such infections is important)
A sudden pelvic injury
Bruises or trauma in the genital areas, thighs or breasts
Vaginal bleeding with no known cause
Clothing that has been torn, stained or blood soaked (as a caregiver or family member, if you see clothing in the trash that is soiled, seek an explanation as to why it is there)
Difficulty in walking, sitting or even laying in certain positions
Some of the psychological signs of abuse include:
Depression or withdrawal
Signs of anxiety or fear around a specific caregiver
Agitation or abrupt changes in mood, especially when discussing certain subjects or when a certain person is present).
Signs of Post-traumatic stress disorder (caregivers should be trained in the symptoms)
Onset of suicidal behaviors or threats
Engaging in inappropriate, unusual or aggressive sexual behaviors that were not present in the past
Engaging in unusual actions that may be the results of a sex role relationship between the victim and the abuser
So, is the problem really the care facilities themselves? Let’s ask Don Drake, a presenter for Connelly Law’s Community Education Programs and a person who has overseen social service and treatment programs for nearly four decades that provided services to clients, including seniors.
Drake states that care facilities are not always the bad guy.
“What’s important is that these facilities have policies and procedures in place when it comes to monitoring, hiring and supervising staff and how they respond when such an incident comes to light. In a perfect world, these things should never occur but even with the best policies and supervision, once you introduce the human element into the equation, bad things can still happen.”
Drake says that even with background checks on individuals, unless they were caught and prosecuted previously, employers may be getting someone who can pass every background check conceivable and still be getting an employee who is a predator.
“Let’s talk about getting what can happen in such facilities. I have over seen drug treatment programs where patients have smuggled in drugs and overdosed on the premises. Should this have happened? No. And we had tight supervision practices and oversite. Yet, when you have a program that treats addiction, chances are incidents such as having an overdose will occur. Same holds true for mental health facilities where people successfully suicide. In a unit full of suicidal people, someone may be successful in completing the act even with the strictest of supervision in place. Yet, when it does happen, the press pounces on these stories which creates an illusion of mismanagement and neglect.”
Drake continued, “In assessing care facilities, don’t be turned off by the fact that an
agency received attention for prosecuting an employee they caught abusing a patient. It may be that the policies and procedures in place were responsible for catching the perpetrator and hopefully locking them up for a good long time. Unfortunately, the press that follows may put that facility in a bad light”.
According to Drake, it is this bad light that may actually be responsible for predators being able to continue their behaviors.
“Imagine being a director of a facility and one of the staff is caught engaging in such activity. To avoid the news articles and scrutiny of the media, the employee is fired but no criminal charges are filed to avoid the negative publicity. So, the perp can leave this place and get a job in another and receive a clean background check during the hiring process and the abuse continues. All because a nursing home operator feared the repercussions of the negative publicity. Is it right? Of course not. But one can understand why such things do occur”.
“So, are there bad care facilities? Absolutely and they should be reported and shut down. But I would tell those who are looking to place a loved one not to be scared off by an agency who had made the newspapers because they arrested an employee for abusing a patient. It may be that the policies and procedures they have in place worked and therefore the perp was caught and prosecuted”.
“When considering a care facility, check that facility’s policies and procedures. Ask them about their supervision and hiring practices. But remember, even with the finest policies in place, things can happen. So, the next question to ask is, how do they respond to such a situation? Do they react firmly and decisively with the well-being of the patient being paramount? This is what should help you make up your mind”.
In my next blog, I will look at the support systems in place for victims of elder abuse.
If you suspect that a family member or loved one is the victim of sexual abuse or assault, Connelly Law has the experience to represent an elderly individual if they have been a victim of any form of exploitation. Remember, it is not safe to assume that a person is incapable of exploiting an elderly person because they are a family member, financial planner, mortgage broker, caretaker, etc. Anyone can abuse an elderly person, and if found to be factual, criminal charges may be brought against them.
Give us a call at 1-855-724-7400 if you have concerns.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.