Long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and group homes, are meant to provide a safe and supportive environment for elderly and vulnerable individuals who require ongoing care. However, disturbingly, instances of abuse and neglect within these facilities have become a growing concern.
In 2021, a judge approved a $15 million settlement in a lawsuit filed by the parents of an incapacitated woman who was sexually assaulted and gave birth at a long-term care center in Phoenix. The settlement was made on behalf of Dr. Phillip Gear, who had cared for the woman for 26 years at Hacienda Healthcare. However, the insurer for Gear argued that they have no obligation to pay the settlement amount, stating that the doctor’s policy didn’t cover claims arising from a sexual act. The settlement is the largest known publicly in connection with the assault on the woman, who has been in a vegetative state since childhood.
Previously, the state of Arizona settled with the woman’s parents for $7.5 million, and Dr. Thanh Nguyen and a medical group also resolved claims against them for an undisclosed amount. Hacienda Healthcare also agreed to a settlement before the lawsuit was filed. The judge found that Gear’s treatment of the woman fell below the standard of care by failing to diagnose her pregnancy and regularly examine her. The judge also noted that the woman’s mother’s requests to have only female employees tend to her daughter were not followed.
The woman’s pregnancy was discovered when an employee at the facility was changing her garments and noticed she was in the process of delivering a child. The incident led to reviews by state agencies and raised concerns about the safety of severely disabled or incapacitated patients. Nathan Sutherland, a licensed practical nurse who worked at Hacienda, was later found to be the biological father of the child through DNA testing. Sutherland was arrested and has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault and abuse of a vulnerable adult.
The woman, who had been in a vegetative state for 26 years, now resides with her parents, who are caring for her son. The cause of her condition is unclear, but she almost drowned at a young age and had congenital issues. The lawsuit alleged that Hacienda missed signs of the pregnancy, and the state was negligent in monitoring the facility. The settlement with Gear is considered the final resolution of civil legal claims related to the rape.
Prevalence of sexual abuse at long-term care facilities in the United States
Determining the exact prevalence of abuse in long-term care facilities is challenging due to underreporting and the complex nature of the issue. However, various studies and reports provide alarming insights into the scope of the problem.
Women and individuals with dementia face a higher risk of experiencing sexual abuse and assault within long-term care facilities. This is due to the fact that women make up a significant majority (65.6%) of the nursing home population, while residents with dementia are particularly vulnerable due to their impaired memory and communication skills. It’s important to understand that although women and residents with dementia are at a higher risk, all residents can be susceptible to abuse.
Perpetrators of sexual abuse can be anyone who comes into contact with the resident. This includes individuals known to the resident, such as family members, friends, or staff members, as well as complete strangers. The abusers may consist of both permanent and temporary staff, visitors to the facility, and even other residents. It’s worth noting that some residents themselves may exhibit aggressive behavior due to dementia or other mental health issues, leading to resident-to-resident sexual aggression (RRSA). This form of abuse is the most common in nursing homes and is driven by dementia-related factors.
It is crucial to recognize that residents have the right to engage in consensual sexual activity, provided that both parties have the capacity to give consent. Assessing a resident’s ability to consent to sexual activity should be done carefully and in compliance with legal and ethical processes. Individuals with dementia or cognitive disorders may lack the ability to provide informed consent. Facilities have the responsibility to ensure the safety of all residents while respecting their right to consensual sexual expression.
How to recognize the abuse of elderly and vulnerable loved ones
The signs of sexual abuse for the woman in the vegetative state were ignored or overlooked when they should not have been. Being able to identify the indications of abuse is critical, especially if your loved one is unable to communicate about it with you. Nursing home abuse and neglect can manifest in various ways:
- Physical abuse. Physical abuse involves the intentional use of force that causes physical harm or pain to a resident. This may include hitting, slapping, restraining, or inappropriate use of medications. Signs of physical abuse can manifest as unexplained injuries such as bruises, welts, fractures, or pressure marks, as well as sudden changes in behavior, fearfulness, or agitation.
- Emotional and psychological abuse. Emotional abuse refers to actions that cause emotional distress or anguish to a resident. This can include insults, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, or threats. Victims of emotional abuse may exhibit signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, or display unexplained emotional distress.
- Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse involves any non-consensual sexual contact or activities with a resident, including unwanted touching, sexual assault, or coerced sexual acts. Indications of sexual abuse may include unexplained genital infections or injuries, bruising in the genital area, difficulty walking or sitting, or sudden behavioral changes.
- Financial exploitation. Financial exploitation refers to the misuse or theft of a resident’s funds, assets, or personal property by staff members or caregivers. This can involve unauthorized withdrawals, forging signatures, coercing residents to change their wills or grant access to financial accounts, or using their belongings without permission. Warning signs may include unexplained financial transactions, sudden changes in financial status, missing personal belongings, or the appearance of unauthorized changes in legal documents.
- Neglect. Neglect occurs when caregivers fail to meet the basic needs of residents, such as providing adequate food, water, shelter, hygiene, and medical care. Signs of neglect can include malnutrition, dehydration, untreated medical conditions, poor personal hygiene, unclean living conditions, or unexplained weight loss.
If you believe that a loved one is being abused, you must report it to the nursing home administrator and the police. You should also contact your Long-Term Care Ombudsman; you can find a list of Kentucky’s Ombudsman by region here. Finally, contact an experienced nursing home abuse attorney at Wilt Injury Lawyers.
How can a Kentucky injury attorney help?
At Wilt Injury Lawyers, we understand the deep concern and distress that comes with suspecting your loved one may be experiencing abuse at their long-term care home. Our experienced personal injury attorneys are dedicated to advocating for the rights and well-being of individuals in such situations. We provide compassionate support and guidance throughout the legal process. We will thoroughly investigate your concerns, gather evidence, and work with experts to establish the facts.
Our goal is to hold the responsible parties accountable and seek justice on behalf of your loved one. We will navigate the complex legal system, handle communication with relevant parties, and pursue legal remedies to ensure your loved one’s safety and recovery. You can trust that we will fight tirelessly to protect their rights and seek appropriate compensation for any damages suffered. Our attorneys are committed to providing personalized attention and are sensitive to the emotional toll these situations can take. By working with us, you can have confidence that you have a strong advocate on your side, dedicated to pursuing justice and improving the quality of care for your loved one.
If your loved one suffered harm at a nursing home or residential facility, whether that harm was an act of sexual abuse or not, our Kentucky attorneys are here to help. To schedule a free consultation at one of our offices in Louisville or Lexington, please call us or fill out our contact form. A phone or video consultation can be arranged if it would make you feel more at ease.