25 Investigates: Protective Services does not investigate abuse in nursing homes

SHARON, Mass. — If your loved one is abused in a Massachusetts nursing home, Elder Protective Services will not look into the case, 25 Investigates has uncovered.

25 Investigates first began looking into how suspected elder abuse is investigated after shocking hidden-camera video from a Sharon nursing home caught two aides tossing around and pulling the hair of a 93-year-old grandmother with dementia.

The two aides caught on video are currently facing criminal charges, but 25 Investigates found not every case receives the same amount of attention.

25 Investigates first made the shocking discovery that Elder Protective Services does not investigate suspected abuse in nursing homes after the family of Donna Freedman reached out to Reporter Christine McCarthy.

Freedman, a dementia patient and former Hull resident, now relies on a nursing home for her basic needs.

Last year, bloody and bruised, she was rushed to the hospital from her South Shore nursing home. Emergency room doctors told her daughter, Marybelle Hall they discovered several fractures to the bone around Freedman’s eye.

“It looked as if somebody hit her with a baseball bat,” Hall told 25 Investigates.

Freedman told doctors she had tripped, while the nursing home reported she may have hit her head on a bedpost.

But doctors didn’t believe those explanations because at the time, Freedman was confined to her bed with an alarm for her safety.

In hospital records obtained by 25 Investigates, emergency room doctors wrote, “We do not feel it is safe for the patient to be brought back to the facility…”

They also alerted Elder Protective Services and the state Department of Public Health of potential abuse, writing “Elder Services and DPH will be involved in the morning,” in Freedman’s medical records.

But Hall told 25 Investigates’ Christine McCarthy she never heard back from the state.

“They said that they would take in the report and that they would follow up on it, but I've never heard anything further,” said Hall.

That’s because 25 Investigates uncovered that Elder Protective Services doesn’t investigate suspected abuse in nursing homes.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders defended the decision for Elder Protective Services to avoid investigating potential abuse in nursing homes.

“Because they, the investigations occur by the Department of Public Health that has the licensing authority over nursing homes and abuse,” said Sudders. “The law is very clear.”

State law is clear.

Elder Protective Services is charged with investigating elder abuse anywhere in the state, according to Massachusetts law.

But 25 Investigates found the agency wrote its own rules that push off that responsibility to the Department of Public Health when it comes to nursing homes.

While DPH licenses those nursing homes, the agency doesn’t have the power to investigate individual cases of abuse.

Sudders, who oversees both DPH and Elder Protective Services, maintains that DPH investigates all suspected cases of abuse that occur in nursing homes.

“If you're asking are all individual allegations of abuse of an elder investigated, yes,” said Sudders.

But Hall says she never even received a phone call from state investigators about her mother’s case.

Arlene Germain, president of the Massachusetts Advocates for nursing home reform, said all suspected elder abuse should be investigated.

“If there's any indication of any bruises, if a person emotionally is withdrawing all of a sudden, if there's any emotional change, that of course needs to be investigated,” said Germain.

DPH tells 25 Investigates it did a “review of the information” from the nursing home and hospital and found “neither report supported any allegation of abuse” in Freedman’s case.

The agency said its findings are all confidential and off limits – even to Freedman and her family.

Freedman is at a different nursing home now and doing better, but her daughter still questions why the state’s investigation is so secretive and why no one ever came to see her mother.

“I'm so very, very angry about this, and I don't want it to happen to somebody else's parent,” Hall told 25 Investigates.

Hall has a pending public records request, seeking the findings in her mother’s case from the state

She even offered to sign a medical privacy waiver so that the state could speak with 25 Investigates about the case. But DPH declined that offer and told 25 Investigates it makes the health and safety of nursing home residents its top priority.