An investigation by The Oregonian has revealed that the state agency charged with fighting the abuse of senior citizens and the disabled has been hiding thousands of cases of neglect. The revelation calls into question Oregon’s entire approach to elder abuse and neglect and is a yet another reminder of the important watchdog role that both the media and our courts must always play in society.
According to the newspaper “the Department of Human Services operates a website that is supposed to help consumers identify safe havens for their aging loved ones, including those suffering from Alzheimer’s and other debilitating illnesses. But an investigation… found that officials have excluded nearly 8000 substantiated claims of substandard care from the state’s website.” The Oregonian reports that its investigation was based on examinations of state records that are not available online, and therefore harder for the general public to access and assess. It notes that “more than 60 percent of the substantiated complaints against care centers in Oregon since 2005 can’t be found on the state’s website.”
The Oregonian’s report emphasizes that all of the complaints excluded by the state and uncovered by this investigation had been verified by state employees. The question, in other words, was not whether the abuse occurred but whether Oregon was willing to acknowledge it.
As I have noted in previous blogs, Chapter 124 of the Oregon Revised Statutes (see link below) covers civil actions regarding abuse prevention and reporting. Chapter 124.005.1(a) defines abuse very clearly as “any physical injury caused by other than accidental means.” Contrast this with the newspaper’s reporting of numerous “cases of elderly residents being punched, pushed, slapped or sexually abused by staff.” More importantly, the statute allows for treble damages when it is proven that a vulnerable person has been abused.
The reporting website maintained by the Oregon Department of Human Services contains a boldfaced, all-caps plea at its top urging people who believe abuse is ongoing to call 911 and offering a number of other ways to report abuse against seniors, children and people with disabilities, but one has to ask what good these admonitions are if there is a significant chance that DHS either will not follow up on them or, worse, will investigate and then neither take action nor make the information available as a warning to others. Indeed, the entire purpose of publishing substantiated abuse claims is to help other families avoid their loved ones becoming subject the same problems.
As a Portland lawyer with experience pursuing cases of both elder abuse and abuse of children I was disappointed to see this article, but applaud The Oregonian for bringing this important issue to public attention. We now know that the state cannot be counted on to follow-up its own investigations, but can take some comfort from the fact that our courts remain available to Oregonians as a mechanism for enforcing justice and accountability in cases like these.
To be clear, these revelations – as shocking as they are – do not mean that anyone reading this who suspects elder abuse should not report it to the state. As the DHS website notes, reporting is mandatory for people in many occupations (such as doctors and nurses, other caregivers, teachers and law enforcement officials) whether they learn of, or suspect, abuse directly as a result of their jobs or through information they acquire outside of work. The state’s investigatory system will only be reformed if people both continue to use it and aggressively follow up their own reporting to ensure that proper action is being taken. The fact that the state abuse reporting system has failed is not a reason to abandon it. Instead we must fix it, while using the legal tools available to all of us to ensure accountability.
ORS Chapter 124: Elderly Persons and Persons with Disabilities Abuse Prevention Act
Oregon Department of Human Services: How to Report Abuse & Neglect