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As abhorrent as it is, sadly sexual abuse in nursing homes is not uncommon and in 2019, a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at an Arizona nursing facility.

The elderly and disabled are some of the most vulnerable and this leaves them at risk of many different kinds of abuse, including sexual abuse.

With patients often unable to speak for themselves and a lack of effective reporting, it can be difficult to determine the extent of nursing home abuse. This article explains exactly what constitutes sexual abuse, how to recognize the signs, and what can you do to pursue justice.

Types of sexual abuse

Any non-consensual sexual act is considered abuse. Sexual abuse can take many forms, including:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Touching of private areas
  • Forced nudity
  • Sexual photography
  • Rape, including vaginal, oral, and anal

Recognizing the signs of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is undeniably upsetting, but it can be difficult to recognize.

Your elderly loved one may not be able to identify their attacker or mentally understand that they are being abused. Shame can also keep victims silent and perpetrators often pick elderly patients for those very reasons.

Sexual abuse can leave behind both physical and psychological evidence. Nursing homes may not always recognize and report these signs, so family members need to be aware of them too.

Signs of sexual abuse in nursing home patients include:

  • Unexplained bruising
  • Torn or bloody clothing
  • Sudden pain while sitting
  • Refusal to communicate
  • Fear of a specific person or place
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Genital or anal bleeding

Understanding the risk factors

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, but certain nursing home patients are at greater risk. 

Female patients and those with dementia are the most likely to experience sexual abuse. Women are typically considered weaker than men, and patients with mental impairment like dementia are less able to identify their abusers.

The nursing facility can also play a role in the risk of abuse and you are more likely to be the victim of abuse at a nursing facility that is:

  • Understaffed
  • Has a poor standard of care

Additionally, some nursing homes have policies in place to protect the facility over the patients.

Who are the perpetrators of sexual abuse?

Nursing home residents are most likely to suffer abuse from:

  • Other residents. Resident-to-resident sexual aggression (RRSA) can be any form of sexual abuse. For example, 77 percent of nurse aides have observed residents exposing themselves to other patients. RRSA may be the result of an altered mental state, such as dementia.
  • Staff members. Many people who work in nursing homes are good at their jobs and genuinely care about the residents of these facilities, but a small minority take advantage of their vulnerable charges. Many nursing home residents need assistance bathing and getting dressed, which can provide opportunity for abuse. Perpetrators are aware that they are unlikely to be caught in situations like this.
  • Facility visitors. Outside visitors often come to nursing homes, whether to see a patient, provide medical care, or provide some kind of service. If given the opportunity, visitors can also abuse nursing home residents.
  • Family members. Family members, a spouse or adult child, who come to visit can be responsible for sexually abusing a nursing home patient.

Reporting sexual abuse

If you suspect that your loved one has experienced sexual abuse, the immediate goal is to prevent any further harm. You should contact the:

  • Administration. If you recognize signs of sexual abuse or your loved one tells you what happened, immediately tell the administration of the nursing home. The leadership of a well-run facility should help conduct an investigation and report the incident to the proper authorities.
  • Ombudsman. You may need or want outside advocacy when someone you love has suffered sexual abuse at a nursing home. The Long-term care ombudsman serves as an outside source of support, available to help you through the complaint process.
  • Authorities. If your loved one has suffered serious harm and needs immediate medical attention as the result of sexual abuse, call 911. Sexual abuse is a crime, and you can report what has happened to the police while your loved one receives the medical care they need. You do not need to wait for the facility to proceed with reporting to the authorities.

You also have the right to inform the Arizona Adult Protective Services (APS) program and the Arizona Department of Health Services. Both APS and the licensing body should then conduct an investigation of the incident.

Seeking damages for sexual abuse

If your loved one has experienced sexual abuse in an Arizona nursing home, you can pursue a case against that facility.

Once you have found a lawyer, they will help you navigate the process of filing a case against the nursing home.

Settling outside of court

Most nursing home abuse cases settle outside of court, which means no jury trial. The process of settling is usually faster than a jury trial.

Before reaching a settlement, the case will involve:

  • Filing. Filing a lawsuit is the first step toward receiving damages for the abuse your loved one has suffered. Once you have a lawyer, they will walk you through everything you need to know about the legal process, including any responsibility you have to testify.
  • Investigation. An investigation will take place prior to any trial. This step in the process helps the plaintiff build a case and the defendant to prepare their defense.
  • Mediation. During the mediation process, the plaintiff’s and defendant’s legal teams will negotiate the value and terms of a settlement agreement.

Going to trial

If your case does goes to court, mediation will not determine the value of any settlement.

Instead, a judge and jury will reach a verdict. The trial process can take much longer than settling outside of court because it can involve multiple court appearances and an appeal by the defendant.

A recent sexual abuse case in Michigan resulted in a $240,000 verdict. A woman in a nursing home was tied down and sexually assaulted. Her husband, living in the same nursing home, filed the lawsuit.

Restitution

The verdict of a criminal trial may require the parties responsible to pay restitution, a form of compensation, to the victim.

Sexual abuse in nursing homes FAQs

Learning a loved one has been the victim of sexual abuse is difficult, and you will want answers to many questions. Here are some of the most common:

Why is sexual abuse a problem in nursing homes?

The elderly live in nursing homes because they need help with the basic activities of day-to-day life. It seems inconceivable that people would abuse someone so vulnerable , but sexual abuse is a very real problem in nursing homes.

Poor facility management, understaffing, and inadequate screening processes for hiring employees can create opportunity for sexual abuse to take place.

Additionally, vulnerability attracts the perpetrators of abuse. The elderly are often physically or mentally unable to defend themselves or even speak out against their abusers.

What can I do to protect my loved one in a nursing home?

The family members of nursing home patients who suffer abuse often feel guilty. It is not your fault. Going forward, you will likely want to know how you can protect your loved one from further abuse.

  • Ask the facility about its policies. Whenever an incident of abuse, whether alleged or confirmed, arises a nursing home should conduct a thorough evaluation of its policies and procedures. It is that facility’s responsibility to protect its residents.

If your loved one is staying in the same facility, ask the administration what changes it has made to its policies to prevent incidents like this from happening again.

If you are considering selecting another facility, ask what policies each potential nursing home has in place to prevent and investigate abuse.

  • Ensure the abuse has been properly reported. Whether abuse occurred because of a systemic failure of a facility or solely because of the actions of an individual, that abuse needs to be properly reported and investigated.
  • Regularly look for the signs of abuse. Family members need to advocate for their elderly loved ones. Regularly speak to your loved one on the phone and come for visits. Be aware of any potential signs of abuse and report any suspicious physical or mental changes in your loved one immediately.

How can I make sure the perpetrator isn’t allowed to harm anyone else?

Nothing can undo sexual abuse, but it can be prevented from happening again. If the perpetrator is another resident, ask what the facility is doing to ensure that resident cannot harm your loved one or anyone else in the facility.

If the perpetrator is a staff member or visitor, it is possible authorities will press criminal charges. It is your right to know that the facility has done its duty in reporting sexual abuse to the proper authorities. Likewise, if the perpetrator is unknown, the facility and outside authorities need to conduct a thorough investigation to determine who is responsible.

What can I expect during a sexual abuse case?

If you and your family have never gone through the legal system, it can seem intimidating. Your lawyer will guide you through the entire process, from the initial investigation to either settlement or a trial verdict.

If you discovered evidence of your family member’s abuse, you may be called upon to give a deposition during the pre-trial investigation. Your testimony can help your lawyer to build a strong case against the nursing home and individual responsible for the abuse.

If the case does not settle outside of court, it is possible you will need to give testimony during the trial. Your lawyer will prepare you for both deposition and testimony, if either is required.

It is possible you will see your loved one’s abuser during the pre-trial and trial proceedings, which can be very upsetting. Your lawyer will warn you if this is going to happen.

The case will be closed when it settles outside of court or when a jury reaches a verdict in a court case.

What does a typical nursing home abuse settlement look like?

The amounts of a nursing home abuse case settlement can vary widely. The final amount is determined by:

If the case settles outside of court, the plaintiff (the victim) and the defendant (the nursing home) will agree on the settlement value.

When a case goes to trial and reaches a verdict, the judge and jury will determine how much compensation the plaintiff is owed.

Wrongful death cases are typically awarded the highest amount, but the ultimate outcome will come down to the individual details of a case.

Sources:

  1. https://www.nursinghomeabusecenter.com/elder-abuse/types/sexual-abuse/
  2. https://www.ohio-injury.com/blog/2017/04/suing-for-sexual-abuse-at-a-nursing-home/
  3.   https://www.azfamily.com/news/woman-in-vegetative-state-gives-birth-at-hacienda-healthcare-in/article_9342c7c4-0fb2-11e9-8138-4fcd53869faf.html
  4. https://www.wattelandyork.com/news/national-report-highlights-widespread-nursing-home-abuse/
  5. https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/02/health/nursing-home-sex-abuse-investigation/
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  12. https://eldermistreatment.usc.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Consumer-Voice_sexual-abuse-issue-brief-FINAL.pdf
  13. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/elder-abuse
  14. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/elder-abuse-and-neglect.htm
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  16. https://theconsumervoice.org/uploads/files/events/wed-2pm-lisa-tripp-dementia-driven-sexual-abuse_(1).pdf
  17. https://ltcombudsman.org/about/about-ombudsman
  18. http://www.napsa-now.org/get-help/how-aps-helps/
  19. https://www.nursinghomeabusecenter.com/compensation/
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  21. https://www.nursinghomeabusecenter.com/legal/lawsuits/
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  23. https://www.nursinghomeabusecenter.com/compensation/settlements/
  24. https://injury.findlaw.com/torts-and-personal-injuries/nursing-home-lawsuit-settlements-faqs.html
  25. ttps://www.nursinghomeabusecenter.org/glossary/deposition/
  26. https://www.nursinghomelawcenter.org/michigan-abuse-settlements.html

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