Community Against Violence column

Educate yourself about sexual abuse at health care facilities

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It’s hard to believe that sexual and physical assaults could occur in the same health care facilities that families and friends are trusting to protect and care for their loved ones. But two recent incidents have triggered renewed outrage that this could happen in our country’s long-term care facilities.

Early this year, at an Arizona long-term care facility, a 29-year-old woman in a vegetative state gave birth. According to the 911 call, no one at the facility was aware she was pregnant. In another case a year earlier, authorities discovered signs of sexual assault and physical injuries on a developmentally disabled woman living at a Florida facility.

Unfortunately, these two horrendous cases are just the tip of the iceberg. A 2017 CNN investigation found the federal government has cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for mishandling or failing to prevent alleged cases of rape, sexual assault and sexual abuse at their facilities from 2013 through 2016. These assaults were made on women of all ages. (The “Nursing Home Compare” tool at medicare.gov lets you see results of health and safety inspections.)

Tragically, these two incidents remind us that everyone needs to learn to recognize the signs of abuse against those who may be sick, elderly or have disabilities, and to be highly vigilant to recognize them as early as possible.

While most caregivers are dedicated and compassionate, unfortunately it’s often the caregiver who is the abuser: spouse, child, other relative or paid caregiver at home or in a care facility. Like child abusers, institution-based abusers may conceal their abuse by appearing attentive and caring – so much so that others find it hard to believe the abuser is harming the client.

For families and loved ones of people in long-term care, here are some pointers – signs of sexual and physical abuse – to help protect your loved one:

• Tour a facility before deciding on placement. Talk to staff and management. Then trust your instincts: Does your heart tell you this is the right place?

• Once at a facility, keep in contact with caregivers. Stay alert to signs of abuse.

• Look for sudden changes in physical condition – bruising, wounding or weight loss – and those more difficult to discern, like lack of food, dehydration or overmedicating that may result in emotional withdrawal, unusual lethargy or refusal to discuss conditions at the facility.

Any person or financial institution with a reasonable suspicion that an incapacitated adult is being abused, neglected or exploited must immediately report the suspected abuse to Adult Protective Services, the state agency that investigates reports, at 1-866-654-3219. If you believe someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or local police for immediate help.

Malinda Williams is the executive director of Community Against Violence, Inc. (CAV) which offers FREE confidential support and assistance for adult and child survivors of sexual and domestic violence, dating violence and stalking; community and school violence prevention programs; reeducation BIP groups for domestic violence offenders; counseling; shelter; transitional housing; and community thrift store. To talk with someone or get information on services available, call CAV’s 24-hour crisis line at (575) 758-9888 or contact TaosCAV.org.

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