Cynthia Owens: Rhode Island Veterans’ Home – The Veterans’ Stories

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War veterans residing at the Rhode Island Veterans’ Home are at continued risk of exposure to prowling and other nefarious behavior in their private rooms there.

A recent Providence Journal story, which touched upon thefts occurring at the home, gave short shrift to ongoing complaints and incident reports of disturbing mistreatment to residents there, made over the course of years, as disclosed in public records provided to the Journal.

The records include reports of punching, shoving, and slapping very elderly residents; humiliating remarks to a resident about his private body parts; a resident abandoned and left to sleep in his wheelchair overnight; another left “totally neglected” for two work shifts after arriving back at the home from a hospital stay; others soaked in urine in their beds for several hours while nursing staff watched television; a resident denied a blanket and a urinal and told to “pee in the bed”; attempts by nursing staff to coerce the payment of money from a resident (with the nurses’ union informing the police that it was simply a “joke”); innumerable thefts of cash, credit cards, and other property in residents’ rooms, from a safe box, a locked drawer, and a purse while a resident was using the bathroom; from wheelchair and clothing pockets, hidden in bedside drawers, and tucked under bedding, while residents lay asleep in their beds; from a resident told to stand and face the wall in his room while the theft occurred; clothing and care packages from family members placed in rooms; a lawsuit alleging the failure of nursing staff to set a bed alarm resulting in death from a fall sustained by a resident; and more.

One resident was saving his money to buy new sneakers; another to play Bingo at the home.

The Journal stated it was given a two-hour tour to see “how the home addresses thefts,” without further details, and noted that the people running the home say, “they monitor security closely,” “take such matters seriously,” and reports of thefts “get reported to the Rhode Island State Police.”

However, the records note there are no surveillance cameras in or near residents’ rooms, resulting in mostly cold cases due to lack of evidentiary proof, despite some incidents being witnessed by supervising nurses. Also, the records reveal lenient and nonexistent in-house disciplinary action, including, for example, counseling and “paid” leave for acts of abuse and allowing temporary nursing staff to continue working after repeated complaints being made about them.

The records further indicate that not all complaints of theft and other mistreatment are being reported to the State Police; and some ongoing police investigations were halted, because the home’s administration claimed that residents later decided to have their complaints handled in-house by the home.

Equally troubling is the cavalier commentary in the Journal story about the expectation of thefts in nursing homes, particularly if people “insist on” leaving their valuables in plain sight, tempting low wage workers to steal.

Written communications over the course of several months to the home’s administration, the governor, and state and federal legislators have been met with evasion and other disregard. The Internet is replete with photos of them enthusiastically attending celebratory events at the home but apparently not so eager to meaningfully address and resolve the troubling situation there.

According to the Journal story, one state legislator who visited the Rhode Island home, Representative Michael Chippendale (Republican, District 40, Coventry, Foster Glocester), said he “couldn’t find fault” with the home’s leadership who take their responsibilities seriously, notwithstanding the public records provided to him. A fellow legislator, Representative Susan Donovan (Democrat, District 69, Bristol), who was also aware of ongoing reports of misconduct at the home, concluded, “It’s very sad, but it’s easy to prey on people who live in nursing homes.” Responses from other legislators were likewise superficial and unproductive.

Additionally, the article includes remarks by the state’s long-term care ombudsman, Kathleen Heren, that the home’s Administrator, Rick Baccus, is good to the veterans and “he’s in there day and night, on the weekends,” without so much as a hint as to how she would know about his work ethic or presence at the home.

The article also fails to mention that Ms Heren confirmed she had not received “a slew” of reports of abuse, neglect and other mistreatment from the home, in response to inquiry about her knowledge of “100 records” of such reports made to the Rhode Island Department of Health, which are required by law to be made to her as well. Ms Heren also offered no comment on whether her office had investigated any of the reports supposedly received by her from the home, and she refused to respond to formal records requests under law for production of such reports.

We expect our elected officials to engage in objective oversight and to enact laws and implement other measures to protect vulnerable citizens’ personal safety and property. Likewise, at a minimum, we expect government agency heads running these homes to obey the law.

Daytime inspections of facilities sometimes detect violations of health care standards, but misconduct occurring within the confines of residents’ rooms during the nighttime shift can remain hidden.

An annual inspection of the Rhode Island Veterans’ Home in late-2018 discovered numerous violations of health laws, including a failure to notify the department of health of a report of rape until more than one week after the incident; physical abuse of residents at the home and its failure to ensure that all residents were free from mental and physical abuse; lack of evidence of immunizations and pre-employment health screenings for workers; lack of infectious disease control for residents with MRSA and other serious infections; and food code violations. None of this was mentioned in the Journal story.

Police believe that in-room security cameras would provide an effective deterrent to criminal conduct. However, the home’s administration has pointed to privacy laws and other concerns, such as the indignity of surveillance and anxiety of residents being videoed, in denying in-room security cameras.

Residents opting to have their own in-room video cameras in their private rooms would be consenting to surveillance activity, so there would be no violation of privacy laws. Additionally, decisions regarding residents’ dignity should be the province of residents or someone acting with authority on their behalf, and not a matter to be decided by the home.

Also, the concern about video surveillance leading to residents’ anxiety is misdirected. The focus of concern should be on the declining health of residents caused by unrest from continued vulnerability to prowling and exposure to criminal conduct in their rooms.

There are other reasons, of course, why a nursing home would be opposed to in-room cameras. Not only are security cameras capable of capturing abuse, neglect and thefts, but they can also reveal whether the home’s administration is complying with law related to the adequacy of nursing staff, supervision of nursing assistants, infection control, responses to bedside call buttons, and other health care requirements.

According to meeting Minutes of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Veterans’ Affairs, questions have been raised about the adequacy of nursing staff and the use of temporary nurses at the home. In particular, one question posed to Mr Baccus was whether the temp nursing staff were meeting the facility’s needs, and his response was that they are, and that, “patients are very satisfied with their care.”

The Journal notes Mr Baccus’ now position on in-room cameras, that he “probably couldn’t stop veterans from installing cameras on their own, but would want to make sure that’s what the veteran actually wanted,” which is noncommittal and otherwise dubious. It also suggests that the home’s administration would question residents’ desires to install cameras.

Elderly and infirm residents living in institutional care would understandably be intimidated by such an interrogation, and some may even fear retaliation if they sense the administration prefers that they not install cameras. As such, residents’ decisions to have in-room cameras should be freely left to the residents and/or their appointed family members without interference by the home’s administration or other official.

The Journal article also includes an elusive statement from Kasim Yarn, the Director of the state Office of Veterans Affairs, which oversees the home, regarding in-room cameras. As Mr Yarn said, “This is not a prison. This is your home. Do you have cameras in your bedroom?” An appropriate answer is, “If need be, yes,” and there can be no doubt from the reports of abuse, neglect, theft, and inspection violations at the home that in-room cameras are necessary to deter misconduct there.

Instead of entrusting patient security to the whims and self-serving interests of residential homes and nursing facilities, a growing number of states have enacted legislation to allow patients to install, use, monitor and maintain their own security cameras in their rooms at their financial cost. The Rhode Island General Assembly should do the same for our veterans in the state-run veterans’ home. It will no doubt require loud support from veterans organizations and the public to make this happen.


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About Cynthia Owens 1 Article
Cynthia Owens was born and raised in Bristol, Rhode Island (where her family members still reside), and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law. She began her law practice straight out of law school with Hunton & Williams, a Richmond, Virginia law firm, then moved to Virginia Beach and worked at another large firm. Married to a military veteran, today Owens runs a pro bono law practice for military veterans.

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