Nursing Home Sexual Assault and Abuse

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As painful as it may be to contemplate, there often are instances where nursing home residents are sexually abused or assaulted. Preying on some of the most vulnerable members of society is reprehensible—but it’s also legally actionable.

Nursing home abuse may be growing as more people enter into a system already overwhelmed by short-staffing and the effects of COVID-19. However, for families whose loved one was assaulted in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, there is hope and help.

No matter who perpetuates the abuse—whether by a staff member or another resident—nursing homes can still be held liable for failing to provide a safe environment for residents.

Sexual assault in nursing homes may be underreported

Physically frail individuals may be unable to ward off an assault and can easily be taken advantage of. Some media stories prompt outrage, such as a case where a woman in a vegetative state was impregnated and later gave birth.

However, it’s not just staff-on-resident assault that’s a concern. Often, residents commit assaults against fellow residents.

Skilled nursing facilities must protect their residents. Sometimes, cases of abuse may not be reported because the victim has a cognitive or physical condition that makes them unable to reliably disclose the abuse. Other times, the victim may be vulnerable to threats against their safety and well-being.

According to a report by CNN, between 2010 and 2015, 226 nursing homes were cited for failing to protect residents in instances where a sustained incident of sexual abuse occurred. The report further noted that since 2000, there had been over 16,000 complaints of nursing home sexual abuse filed.

Sexual abuse consequences for long-term care homes

The consequences for a long-term care facility if a report of sexual abuse is filed can include a citation and a fine for failure to protect their residents.

In a few instances, the facility will lose Medicare funding, significantly impacting its operation. However, this isn’t an immediate consequence but rather something that happens after several reports of assault and abuse.

Negative publicity for a nursing home named in a sexual abuse accusation may deter these facilities, but it’s not a reliable consequence. Many long-term care homes may simply sweep incidents under the rug.

Common signs of abuse in nursing homes

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) notes that 7% of all injury and wrongful death cases in the U.S. are due to gross negligence or abuse. Common reasons for nursing home abuse and neglect are:

Lack of due diligence in the hiring process

Understaffing or unqualified staff

Medical malpractice

Medication mismanagement or errors

Financial exploitation

In a nursing home abuse claim, attorneys often file punitive damages and financial punishment for negligence. If your loved one has been a victim of nursing home abuse or neglect, an attorney experienced in elder law can help your family explore your legal options.

What does sexual abuse entail?

Sexual abuse is non-consensual sexual behavior, words, or acts forced by one person onto another. Anyone can perpetuate sexual abuse, and anyone may be a victim. Elderly people are among the most vulnerable to sexual abuse. The assault often is intended to control or humiliate the victim and can include:

Sexual abuse can take many forms, such as:

Some nursing home victims of sexual assault may not realize that they’re being hurt. People with dementia, for example, might be manipulated into participating in sexual behavior. However, their medical condition makes it impossible for them to legally consent.

Who perpetrates sexual abuse on the elderly?

Most victims of elder sexual abuse are female, while the majority of the perpetrators are male.

Abuse that occurs outside of a long-term care center tends to involve family members. Many senior citizen abusers may be a spouse or adult children. Research indicates that nearly 2 million senior citizens may have been abused or neglected by their caregivers.

Unfortunately, many elder abuse cases in nursing homes involve people who may be physically or mentally incapacitated and thus unable to reliably identify their abuser or make a statement about the abuse.

These cases can be difficult to pursue, so if you suspect that your loved one has experienced sexual assault in their long-term care home, speak to an elder abuse attorney with experience in these cases.

Sometimes, a neuropsychologist may be able to determine the extent and impact of the abuse on behalf of the victim.

Know about your legal options in a nursing home sexual abuse case

Nursing home abuse allegations must be filed within a certain time frame, known as the statute of limitations. These vary from state to state and can be as little as one year or as long as five years. If you don’t file a case within your state’s statute of limitations, the court will likely throw the case out.

It’s better to file as soon as possible, consulting with a lawyer who practices elder law and pursues nursing home abuse cases. They can give you more information about the regulations that govern these cases, including the statute of limitations and the kind of evidence and documentation you need to solidify your case.

In addition to filing within the statute of limitations, it’s better to file sooner rather than later, because your loved one’s cognitive abilities may decline, making obtaining witness outcry and testimony more difficult.

In many cases, the victim is hesitant or scared to confront their abuser. Ask your lawyer about the precautions you can take to ensure that your loved one is protected from retaliation or further abuse.

Some common forms of sexual harassment and elder abuse include:

Degrading remarks about the person’s body or sexual orientation

Forcing the senior to perform a sexual activity, either on themselves or on the abuser

Sexual propositions that don’t stop after the individual tells the abuser to stop asking

Videoing or taking lewd images of the other person, or recording sexual contact or sex acts

Coercion of sexual activity under threat of withholding care or assistance, such as food or medication

Sexual assault and abuse can take many forms and can occur in a long-term care facility or even the person’s own home. Often, in-home caregivers may perpetuate abuse against senior citizens.

When and where does sexual abuse of the elderly happen?

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities are common places where elder abuse and neglect happen, but seniors who are receiving health and personal care services in their homes may be vulnerable, as well. Perpetrators may be family members or the people tasked with providing care and protection for the senior.

Elderly victims are often unable to protect themselves from physical abuse and may be unable to seek help. Some people may be in a physical or mental condition that prohibits them from realizing that they are being abused. For many seniors, being isolated and afraid to speak up creates an environment that facilitates more abuse.

Risk factors for sexual abuse in nursing homes

The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) noted several factors that increase an individual’s risk of sexual assault in nursing homes:

If your loved ones cannot advocate for themselves, it’s important to know what to look for when visiting them in a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

nursing home resident

Signs that your loved one may have been sexually abused

Because so many elderly people cannot advocate for themselves, it’s important to know the signs of sexual abuse. It’s important to listen to your loved ones and believe them if they speak up and disclose abuse.

Some physical signs of sexual abuse can include:

However, there may be no sign of physical abuse, or it may have been a few days since the assault, and your loved one may have been cleaned up or had any injuries treated to hide the abuse.

Seniors may exhibit emotional and psychological reactions to abuse, as well. Some common responses to being sexually assaulted or abused are:

Elderly abuse victims may also exhibit a change in their behavior and interactions with their abusers. In a nursing home setting, they may refuse service from the abuser if that person is an employee of the facility. Or, if it’s a fellow resident, they may avoid the person or start arguments with them.

Anxiety and fear can present themselves in different ways, including more aggressive behavior, turning the hurt and shame inward, crying more, or blaming themselves for the abuse.

If you note signs of abuse in your loved one, it’s essential to seek help. You may be able to file a complaint on their behalf and have the nursing home or individual caregiver investigated.

What are my options if my loved one was abused in a nursing home?

If you suspect that your loved one was a victim of abuse in a long-term care home or by a visiting in-home caregiver, you have a few options, including seeking legal redress.

First of all, make sure that your loved one is safe and secure. It may mean removing them from the facility where the abuse occurred and finding them a new, safe environment. Ensure that you find a place that can safely meet their needs.

You also should report the abuse to either the nursing home director or the director of the in-home caregiver agency. Many long-term care providers have a protocol for abuse complaints, so follow the steps to formally report abuse.

If you believe that your loved one was abused or raped very recently, you can call 911 or take them to a hospital to report the incident. Try to preserve any physical evidence of the abuse, and discourage your loved one from bathing, brushing their teeth, changing clothes, or even urinating until you get to the hospital.

You’ll also be able to get medical attention—including psychological support—at the hospital. They may be able to give you a referral for a place where your loved one can safely stay and have their needs met.

You should also inform your state’s Licensing and Certification Agency—responsible for inspecting and issuing licenses for nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other long-term care facilities.

Your state also administers a Long-Term Care Ombudsman program, which helps protect the interests and safety of residents in long-term care facilities. They may be able to conduct an impartial investigation of the nursing home and issue a fine or citation for abuse.

Helping your loved one recover from abuse

Nursing home sexual abusers prey on the most vulnerable victims. Recovering from abuse can take time. Once you’ve removed the senior from the abusive environment, therapy with a counselor can help. Reporting the abuse can also help your loved one begin to recover.

Sexual abusers and nursing homes that allow abuse, whether through negligence or careless oversight, should be held accountable under the law. Sexual abuse is illegal, and those responsible should face justice.

An elder care or personal injury lawyer can help your family file a case against the abuser and the long-term care facility where the abuse happened.