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Families share shocking stories of elder abuse at Minn. care centers

ST. PAUL—They came to the Minnesota Capitol frustrated and angry. Many cried as they told their stories; some struggled to hold back sobs of grief.

"I don't have politically correct words to say what I've seen," Corey Tanner told a Senate committee investigating the abuse of seniors and vulnerable adults. His mother, Mildred, was mistreated in a memory-care facility.

"To be blunt, I've seen other residents and my mom sitting in soiled pants for four or five hours," Tanner said. "I've seen residents with their heads on tables with a tray of food plopped in front of them. People going unattended for many, many hours. Deprived of their dinner. Deprived of enough staff or people ... training to take care of them."

Lawmakers on the Senate Aging and Long-term Care Policy Committee got a startling and intimate look Wednesday, Feb. 21, at the abuse and maltreatment seniors and vulnerable adults have suffered at facilities that are supposed to be overseen by the state.

One after another, for nearly two hours, family members told their horrific, graphic stories to a group of lawmakers who listened, stunned.

Worse than 'doggy day care'

Debbie Singer, a veterinarian, told senators about her 92-year-old mother who died in a nursing facility and how her body sat in her room for days because no staff members performed the required check on her.

"When I arrived, two days of newspapers were outside her door...My heart was pounding because I knew something wasn't right," Singer said. "I flipped on the light switch and to my horror she was lying lifeless in her lift chair."

Fighting back tears, Singer said it was evident her mother did not die peacefully.

"As a veterinarian, I believe we provide better monitoring to our pets," Singer said. "Whether it is at a vet clinic, a boarding facility, a doggy day care provider or a pet-sitting service. Our elders and vulnerable adults deserve to be cared for and respected."

Unexplained falls, inappropriate touching

Robin Roberts told of her mother's move into an assisted-living facility in fall 2017 as she struggled with Alzheimer's disease.

Roberts' mom entered the facility able to walk with a cane and feed herself. She was soon wheelchair bound and no longer independent.

The change so alarmed Roberts she took her mother to the doctor. "We found out she was being chemically restrained," she said.

Her mother had several unexplained falls, eventually being rushed to the emergency room to treat an injury.

"The emergency room had to staple her head to close the wound," Roberts explained. "It finally hit me. Mom's condition sunk to the level of care she received."

Later, Roberts was told her mother was inappropriately touched by another resident.

"Standing in the police department is when I broke down," she said.

Initially, Roberts struggled with the state official assigned to investigate her mother's case. But that changed after, with the help of an advocate, she began to question the inquiry process. Despite the change, Roberts described the state's investigation system as inadequate.

Overhaul underway, new laws expected

Minnesota is in the process of overhauling its system for protecting seniors and vulnerable adults in long-term-care facilities overseen by the state. Next week, the Senate committee will hear from providers.

Next month, the legislative auditor, a state watchdog, will detail the findings of its investigation of the state Health Department's Office of Health Facility Complaints, which is responsible for investigating allegations of abuse.

Lawmakers learned last year that few complaints of maltreatment were investigated by the office where a hostile work environment and culture of bullying reigned. Complaints against two of the agency's leaders are being investigated and the Department of Human Services has been called in to help with a backlog of complaints.

Earlier this week, state officials said they've made substantial progress addressing a backlog of abuse complaints. About 700 of 3,147 allegations still need to be addressed and should be resolved before the end of the year.

A task force convened last year by Gov. Mark Dayton recently recommended sweeping reforms and new laws to protect seniors and vulnerable adults. Lawmakers are expected to begin debating those proposed changes in the coming weeks.

"It's apparent we do have a failing state system here," said Sen. Karin Housely, R-St. Mary's Point, who chairs the aging and long-term-care committee.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service