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“Heartbreaking”: Elder abuse and neglect reports filed in every corner of Wisconsin

Published: Mar. 24, 2021 at 6:00 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Heartbreaking--that’s the word local health officials use to describe the crisis in many long-term care facilities charged with taking care of our elders.

These officials are investigating thousands of reports of abuse and neglect. They say it’s unlike anything they’ve seen. They worry about what they’ll find as restrictions are lifted and families visit their loved ones again.

It’s a concern for many people as our population ages, impacting 1.2 million people in the United States.

Wisconsin officials tell First Alert Investigation it’s become common to respond to complaint and find people neglected, alone, lying on the floor for a long time without anyone knowing about it.

DEPLORABLE CONDITIONS

“You’re assuming that your parents, or whoever, is getting really good care and often times, they’re not,” says Gena Schupp, Brown County Adult Protective Services.

Schupp and her APS team are on the frontlines, called to investigate allegations of abuse or neglect in Assisted Living, Nursing, Adult Family Homes, and private residences.

“The people that we’re seeing are so bad now they’re ending up in the hospital,” says Schupp. “We’ve had several people where we’ve gone into their home and they’ve been in very, very poor shape. Some people have passed away.”

Some people are living in deplorable conditions in their own homes and not able to care for themselves.

“A lot of people with rodents, mice, they have animals that they’re not able to take care of,” says Schupp. “Again, if you think about someone who’s not seen for a long time and they’re not able to even get up to go to the bathroom, what kind of condition they’re in.”

There’s always been concern, but Schupp says it’s reaching a level never seen, all because vulnerable people are doing what they’re told and following COVID-19 pandemic guidelines.

“They’re not being seen by people, so no one’s making those reports to us,” says Schupp.

Doreen A. Goetsch is the Adult Protective Services Coordinator for the Wisconsin Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources. “Out of sight, out of mind and we don’t know what’s happening,” she says.

As we started researching and talking with local and state health investigators, we discovered elder abuse or neglect reports in every corner of the state.

“The cases have always been there but they’re more severe,” says Alice Page, Adult Protective Services and Systems Developer, Wisconsin Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources.

First Alert Investigation requested data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in February. We asked how many complaints the agency received involving nursing or assisted living facilities during the pandemic.

The agency says it has an antiquated reporting system, but recorded 10,018 reports for older adults in 2019. That’s the most recent data DHS could provide.

The agency did say complaints and concerns have increased since the start of the pandemic.

WHAT WE FOUND

First Alert Investigation was told to search thousands of records in the state’s online database. We searched them one-by-one. We started with Assisted Living and Adult Family Homes--the ones the state says are sources of most problems. We looked at 175 facilities in Brown County and found 16 cited for neglect or abuse in the last year. Most of those facilities were fined thousands of dollars by the state’s regulatory agency.

Reports revealed injuries and deaths for people living in long-term care facilities.

Some of the deaths were from COVID-19. One home recorded eight deaths attributed to the virus.

Another facility reported deaths of two residents.

We found cases of staff not wearing Personal Protective Equipment, also known as PPE.

One case involved employees testing positive for COVID-19 and still coming in to work.

We found more incidents of neglect and abuse not related to the coronavirus. That includes multiple facilities that failed to giving residents their medication.

At one facility, two people missed 164 doses of needed prescription medications over three months.

We discovered findings of “inappropriate care.” A resident broke a leg when staff “pulled on their clothing and they fell out of their wheelchair.”

There’s one common factor in multiple complaints. “That they don’t have enough staff,” says Schupp. “Under trained, underpaid... often times they’re required to work double shifts.”

Last summer, police were called to a facility when the staff walked out in the middle of the night. They left 36 residents with one unqualified staff member to care for them.

“People are not getting taken to the bathroom. They’re not getting showers,” says Schupp. “Not getting their three meals a day because their facility basically does not have the staff.”

Goetsch of the Wisconsin Bureau of Aging and Disability Resources says, “We’ve gotten some really tough cases like that and it’s all due to the pandemic and lack of workforce.”

FINANCIAL EXPLOITATION

For the first time, the state is tracking another form of abuse--financial exploitation.

Between scams and thefts by family members, $25,867,537 was stolen from seniors in 2020. That’s with 45 of 72 counties reporting.

“I can’t imagine what the number is going to be when we have all 72 counties reporting. I was shocked,” Goetsch says.

In the cases we found--neglect, physical and financial abuse--facilities were cited and most face large fines. No criminal charges have been filed.

State officials describe it as a huge problem.

“It isn’t happening nearly as much as it should. Let’s put it that way: APS for many, many years, has been very frustrated with their ability to get law enforcement to pay attention to some of these cases, because LEO would say these are family matters. This isn’t for us, and that’s not true,” says Page.

Officials blame age and memory, saying it those attributes are unfairly used against the elderly.

In financial crimes, victims don’t always want to turn on family members who are stealing from them.

“Those are cases that are tough to prosecute because you don’t have real stellar witnesses. Doesn’t mean you don’t have a crime and don’t have a victim. It’s just a case that’s going to be difficult to win in court,” says Schupp.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Wisconsin’s Bureau of Aging says the agency was working on training programs to get these cases in the hands of police and prosecutors. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled that effort.

Wisconsin has developed a hotline to report abuse. You do not need proof. If you have an instinct, report it and they’ll take it from there. The number is (833) 586-0107.

Ask a lot of question of your loved ones. Ask them how they’re eating, ask them about medications, ask them about behavior. Try to see them whether it be in person, a window visit, or virtual.

Brown County Adult Protective Services: https://www.browncountywi.gov/services/adult-protective-services/

Phone number to report concern or complaint to APS:

  • DURING BUSINESS HOURS - (920) 448-7885
  • AFTER HOURS – call the Crisis Center: (920) 436-8888

Wisconsin hotline to report elder abuse or neglect concerns: https://reportelderabusewi.org/ or call (833) 586-0107

Elder abuse resources: https://reportelderabusewi.org/resources/

Other resources: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/aps/resources

Search by provider or county to see if the state has investigated complaints at specific facilities, as well as the state’s findings: https://www.forwardhealth.wi.gov/WIPortal/subsystem/public/DQAProviderSearch.aspx

To file a complaint: https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/4488026/DQA-Complaint-Intake-Survey

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