Watch, but don't listen: 'Granny cams' can still be illegal

Watch, but don't listen: 'Granny cams' can still be illegal

CHELMSFORD, Mass. — Ruth Stanizzi was worried her 50-year-old disabled son was being abused.

"We suspected, we knew that something happened, but we had no proof,”  Ruth said.

Her son Paul is disabled, unable to speak and has lived in a group home for most of his life.

Content Continues Below

"He would have unexplainable bruises,” Stanizzi said.

The family was not satisfied with the answers they received from workers at Northeast Residential Services on Harding Street in Chelmsford.

When Paul suffered more injuries in October, including a broken neck and bruises to his face, the family decided to take matters into their own hands.

"We have to do something, I talked to my brother, my mother, and we decided let's try to get a camera in there," said Dave Stanizzi, Paul’s brother.

Dave purchased a camera designed to look like a picture frame for $110 on Amazon and placed it in Paul’s room.

The told Boston 25 News, what they recorded, disgusted them.

According to court documents, Northeast Residential Services employees Jennifer Nganga and Daniel Maina can be seen and heard hitting, grabbing, pushing and yelling at Paul.

According to the police report, the incidents happened on several occasions.

"I just couldn't believe it, I just started to cry when I saw it, I said I can't believe this," Ruth said.

"Yeah, it's very bad, it's very violent,” said Joe Stanizzi, Paul’s brother.

Maina and Nganga are charged with permitting abuse on an elderly or disabled person and multiple counts of assault and battery on a person with an intellectual disability. Their trial is scheduled to begin in April.

The Stanizzi family never considered they were breaking the law. They only wanted to help Paul.

But attorney David J. Hoey in North Reading said families run a risk by using their own hidden cameras to investigate.

"Look, it's real simple: currently in the state of Massachusetts, you cannot audio record somebody without their consent," Hoey said.

Massachusetts is considered a “two-party consent” state, which makes it a crime to secretly record a conversation. The law applies to video when sound is recorded.

"Audio is the key. If you just did video, you might be okay. You can't have the audio attached to it unless you have the two-way consent,” Hoey said.

The family of a 93-year-old great-grandmother named Dorothy set up a hidden camera in her room at Wingate at Sharon in 2017.

In the video obtained by Boston 25, a worker showed Dorothy her fist. Another grabbed her hair from behind and yanked her head around.

Dorothy can be heard protesting and arguing with her caretakers as they violently put her in bed.

"She’s 98 pounds. They were picking her up and whipping her around," Dorothy’s granddaughter Kristen said in a 2017 Boston 25 interview.

"It’s awful. We haven’t even slept nights with the images in our head of what was taken place, and we weren’t there to help her," Kristen said.

The workers, Domingas Texixeria and Leonide Jean Paul Bien-Aime, were fired and eventually convicted. They’re on probation until 2021.

Hoey said at least nine states have enacted some form of a "granny cam law" that allows families to use electronic surveillance in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and home healthcare.

None of the states are in New England.

But Hoey said clients ask him all the time about using hidden cameras in Massachusetts.

"If they come in asking 'Can I set up a granny cam?’ I tell them you can without audio, but I don't recommend it,” Hoey said. "You have other options. Don't investigate yourself."

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office fined seven nursing homes $500,000 and banned one health care company in March after widespread reports of abuse and neglect.

One of the cases involved 89-year-old Betsy Crane, who died after investigators said she fell 20 times inside the Beaumont Rehabilitation in Westborough.

Attorney General Maura Healey said she would consider reviewing the statute that prohibits families from using hidden cameras with audio inside nursing homes.

"I think it’s probably something that bears further analysis and I’m not going to comment on that," Healey said back in March.

"I think there are any number of questions about patient privacy, and the use of material recorded, but we’ll learn more about it," Healey said.

There are no recent cases of families prosecuted for violating the state’s wiretapping law, according to emails from district attorney’s offices in Worcester, Norfolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties.

In addition to criminal concerns, Hoey said there are also ethical questions involving the privacy for not only health care workers but roommates in the same room.

Hoey said if you do suspect abuse or neglect, call police, let the facility’s administration know, or report it to the Massachusetts’s Department of Public Health.

The Stanizzi family said they are not facing criminal charges and would set up a camera again if they thought Paul was in danger.

"If you see something that you don't think is right look into it, because more than likely it's not right,” Ruth said.

The same "two-party consent" rules for audio recordings also apply to so-called "Nanny Cams" used to keep an eye on childcare employees.