Starting this fall, elderly residents in New Jersey’s nursing homes and other long-term care facilities could benefit from additional protections designed to ensure law enforcement is looped into possible criminal abuse cases right from the start.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a bipartisan bill Monday that requires workers at the more than 900 state-regulated facilities that house senior citizens to promptly contact police if they suspect abuse, exploitation, or other criminal harm involving any of the elderly residents. It also holds both the worker and the facility responsible if this call isn’t made within a certain timeframe.
Under the current law, employees must report suspected abuse, neglect, and other harm to the state’s Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, which advocates for senior citizens in all long-term residential sites and is empowered to investigate these complaints. But workers are not required to call the cops.
In practice, officials said the ombudsman’s office — which is not a first-responder agency — promptly refers calls it gets involving emergencies to police, and encourages caregivers to call 911 directly if their concern is urgent. (The office also refers cases to law enforcement later in the process, for potential prosecution.)
Waging a campaign against elder abuse
But outreach to law enforcement will be mandatory when “Peggy’s Law” takes effect in 60 days; the measure is named for 93-year-old Peggy Marzolla who died several months after being injured while in the care of a Brick nursing home in 2010. Marzolla’s daughter didn’t buy the explanation she got from staff and was displeased with the state’s follow-up, leading her to lobby lawmakers to better protect institutionalized seniors — a campaign she has continued ever since.
“When families put their loved ones in the care of a nursing home or other assisted-living facility, they expect that they’ll be treated properly and with respect,” said state Senator Jim Holzapfel (R-Ocean), who represents Brick and has worked on the bill for more than six years with Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and others. “If an employee of one of these homes even has the slightest suspicion that something might be awry, it should be their duty to report it.”
According to legislators, Marzolla was treated at Ocean Medical Center for a broken eye-socket, cheekbones, and wrist, among other injuries, which nursing home staff blamed on an accidental slip and fall.
‘Swept under the carpet’
“While we may never know for certain if a crime was actually committed in her case, it’s unconscionable to think that this type of abuse can be overlooked or swept under the carpet,” said bill sponsor Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who was recently chosen by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy as his lieutenant governor. “Seniors and their family members should have the peace of mind that there is a system in place to stop this traumatic abuse in its tracks.”
According to the ombudsman’s annual report for 2016, New Jersey has 380 nursing homes, with some 51,000 beds, licensed through the Department of Health. Another 500-plus other long-term care facilities — boarding homes and group residential facilities primarily overseen by the Department of Community Affairs — provide nearly 26,000 additional beds.
The ombudsman’s office, formed in 1977, has the power and trained staff to investigate a wide range of complaints related to seniors living in these facilities; they can also probe cases involving residents over age 60 in state-run developmental centers and psychiatric hospitals. Each site is required to prominently hang a poster that displays information about the ombudsman’s office complaint line (1-877-582-6995) and these posters now urge people to call 911 if it is an emergency.
This outreach helped result in the office — currently led by James McCracken, who previously ran a long-term housing facility in Hackettstown — getting more than 6,000 calls and emails last year, although this included many that they were not empowered to handle because they didn’t relate to seniors, for example. Nearly three out of four related to nursing home care, according to the report; the rest relate to incidents at group, boarding homes, and other facilities.
Investigators at the ombudsman’s office opened more than 2,700 cases in 2016, investigating reports of alleged improper care, unexplained injuries, physical and sexual abuse (by staff and other residents), and financial exploitation, among other complaints. The office also referred some 17 cases to the state attorney general last year, a representative said, most involving financial fraud in which the elderly resident was a victim.
The new law — based on a bill (S-1219) whose other sponsors included Assemblymen David Wolfe and Gregory McGuckin, (both R-Ocean) and Assemblymen Tom Giblin and Benjie Wimberly (both D-Passaic) — requires workers to contact police if they suspected a crime within 24 hours, or within two hours if an injury is involved. It also makes long-term care operators educate staff on this new mandate each year and ensures the ombudsman’s office includes it in its outreach and materials.
Peggy’s Law also requires the ombudsman’s office to create a hotline for complaints that is staffed 24 hours a day; currently, the complaint calls are answered in person during business hours and messages left at night and on weekends are returned promptly, staff said.
It also alters the penalties for staff members and facilities that do not inform police as required; facilities could now be fined only $500 for a violation, as opposed to the $5,000 permitted under the current law, but individual employees could also be charged $2,500 for failing to report an incident, while they are now off the hook when it comes to state assessments.
Laurie Brewer, chief of staff to the ombudsman, said that while it would have preferred the higher penalty, the office was very supportive of efforts to emphasize the need to call 911 first when it is an emergency. “We’ve worked hard to get this word out,” she said, but with Peggy’s Law, this recommendation will soon be made official.