Older adults and disabled people are some of the most vulnerable in our society, not least because they’re often isolated in care facilities when their families are no longer able to meet their needs. Tragically, the decision to place a family member in care increasingly has to be accompanied by worries about abuse, thanks to a growing list of shocking exposÚs of horrific activities in care homes. The Center for Investigative Reporting, PBS, NPR, and many other journalism organizations have peered deep into the heart of American care facilities and what they have found has been enough to send chills down anyone’s spine.
In California last year, a sustained investigation of facilities for developmentally-disabled adults ultimately prompted major reforms from the state after California Watch exposed sexual assault, rape, physical abuse, neglect and torture of disabled people in California facilities. The Center for Investigative reporting has highlighted similar issues in California’s eldercare facilities, indicating a systemic problem.
Notably, in both cases, journalists documented a widespread disinterest in investigating reports of abuse and neglect. To clear a huge backlog of cases, the state effectively pressured investigators to “close” cases without ever leaving their desks, let alone actually investigating. Consequently, many suspicious deaths went without ultimate closure and justice, and more importantly, the perpetrators of crimes against elderly and disabled residents of institutions were allowed to continue to working in these environments with vulnerable people.
In San Diego County, a detailed drilldown of information about suspicious deaths clearly illustrates that poor care led to the untimely deaths of many seniors, some of whom died of abuse and neglect. Older adults were found with festering wounds, extreme dehydration, jaundice and other signs of profound neglect in crowded, understaffed facilities — when they weren’t accruing mysterious bruises and fractures that were blamed on “falls.”
Some sued, winning judgments in cases citing neglect and abuse in care homes, but it can be difficult to collect judgments. Thus, victims and their families don’t have the funds they need to find a safe care facility or develop an appropriate care program at home.
The growing public awareness about these issues has forced the hand of California officials, making them reconsider policies on investigation, oversight and control of residential care facilities. While the state claims it is recommitting to protection of some of its most vulnerable residents, whether it’s able to follow through remains to be seen. Regulation can be expensive to administer, which is a significant issue for a state as cash-strapped as California. The state would need to expand hiring in order to have enough personnel for investigations, research and spot checks of residential care facilities.
Assisted living and residential care are huge growth industries, thanks to a combination of factors including an aging population and changing family dynamics. As the profit margin rises on such facilities, so does the risk of abuse and neglect, which means that it’s more important now than ever to maintain an aggressive regulatory and investigative presence. Can California do right by its elderly and disabled residents?
Photo credit: Garry Knight.