Elder abuse reports increasing in Massachusetts, but investigations remain vague

Elder abuse reports increasing in Massachusetts, but investigations remain vague

BOSTON — As reports of elder abuse sharply increase each year in Massachusetts, it is unclear if anyone is investigating such abuse when it occurs in nursing homes.

A local nurse who reported suspected neglect and abuse at the nursing home where she formerly worked never heard back from the state agency she reported it to, she told Boston 25 News Friday.

That nurse, who has 34 years of experience, asked to remain anonymous, but showed Boston 25 News the report she sent two months after she quit working at the facility.

Content Continues Below

She "witnessed residents not fed and lunging at applesauce off a spoon of crushed medication," she wrote in the report to the Department of Public Health.

There were multiple falls, she told Boston 25 News, resulting in a patient’s "crushed 4th finger," she wrote.

"Call bells unanswered in prompt manner or ignored," the document goes on to say.

"This whole thing was wrong. These people are neglected and abused," she told Boston 25 News. "You don't not feed someone. That's a basic need. You do not mistreat and yell at them."

A fax receipt show she successfully sent the report in November. When she followed up with the state after the first report, she says DPH told her the office never received the document. So, a second receipt shows, she sent it again.

"After I got nowhere with the administrator, nor the supervisors, I said, 'I can’t work here anymore,'" she said. "My own license was on the line, because I couldn’t possibly take care of everything that was happening there. Nor could my conscience and my soul. And I took action."

DPH would not confirm whether or not it investigated the case, citing the privacy of the nursing home residents.

"Our highest priority is protecting the health, safety and privacy of nursing home residents," DPH spokesman Tom Lyons said in a statement. "Every complaint that we receive is acted upon. As we stated before, it is not the policy or practice of DPH to comment publicly on any aspect of the private health information of individual residents of the Commonwealth."

But 25 Investigates uncovered Thursday the state may not investigate cases of nursing home abuse at all. Elder Protective Services investigates cases of elder abuse anywhere in the community except in nursing homes. For those cases, it wrote its own rules, pushing off the responsibility to the Department of Public Health, which does not have the power to investigate individual cases of abuse.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who oversees both Elder Protective Services and the Department of Public Health, told 25 Investigates her agency looks into every report.

"The Department of Public Health investigates all cases that occur in hospitals, nursing homes and the like," said Health. "So, yes, if you're asking are all individual allegations of abuse of an elder investigated, yes."

But the nurse Boston 25 spoke to Friday is still waiting for answers.

"Online, you print out the forms," she said of filling out the report including all her personal information and her account of what happened. "It directly states at the Department of Public Health that if you do not remain anonymous, and you give us your name, your license number – you’re a (mandated) reporter – you will hear back from us a full report of the investigation. I heard nothing."

Her report is just one of thousands the state receives every year.

Statistics from the state show Elder Protective Services received more than 27,000 reports of suspected abuse in fiscal year 2016 – a 38-percent increase in just four years – though it’s unclear how many of those cases are in nursing homes.

State Rep. Tackey Chan (D-Quincy) believes there may be even elder abuse happening than the numbers indicate.

That is why he is proposing a bill that would make it a crime for mandated reporters – professionals who suspect abuse or neglect – not to report it.

"In hospitals, you report every infection that's a danger to people's lives," Rep. Chan said. "Why should we not hold caretakers for our senior population to the same standard?"

While Chan says the state has many valuable programs for seniors, when it comes to abuse and neglect, it falls short.

"This is not complicated,” Chan said. “It's very straight-forward; we should do more, to protect."