The decision by Portland police to charge a 34-year-old nursing assistant with the rape of an 87-year-old nursing home patient is drawing new attention to sexual assault issues in Oregon nursing homes, hospitals and other facilities that care for the elderly.
According to a recent article in The Oregonian, a Portland man “is charged with first-degree rape and first-degree unlawful sexual penetration. He… is being held in the Washington County jail with bail set at $250,000.” The paper adds that the alleged rape was not the first time the suspect had been brought to the attention of police: they received a complaint about him back in June in reference to the assault of a 94-year-old woman at the same facility “but couldn’t substantiate it at the time.” Now, the paper reports, quoting the Washington County Sheriff’s office, the accused could also face charges in that case. Law enforcement authorities tell the paper they believe other victims may also come forward.
The arrested man “was licensed as a certified nursing assistant in February 2015 and has no history of discipline. He graduated from the Caregiver Training Institute in October last year, according to records,” The Oregonian reports.
As the Oregon laws governing nursing and residential care facilities make clear (see link below) the caregiver’s action can also expose his employer to thousands of dollars in civil penalties. The larger question, however, is how someone who would commit such a heinous act could slip through the screening system in the first place. Put another way, beyond the immediate question of whether and how the alleged rapist will be punished there is the longer-term question of how nursing homes go about screening job applicants. Surely there is an argument to be made that in such a critical and sensitive position a potential employer has a moral duty to do more than a simple criminal background check on job applicants. One can take that a step further and argue that if a moral duty does exist it ought to become an enforceable legal obligation.
As a Portland attorney with a practice focusing on personal injuries, nursing home abuse and medical malpractice it seems to me that this case is one that, over time, should engage not just Oregon’s courts but our legislature, the Oregon Health Authority and the state Department of Human Services as well. Oregon law has specific provisions regarding assault on vulnerable or incapacitated persons. Criminal prosecutions and civil penalties are obviously essential tools to punish wrongdoing, but careful regulation and oversight are equally essential if we are going to prevent abuses like these from happening in the first place. That, in turn means both higher potential fines (current law caps nursing home fines at $15,000 per quarter) and a more meticulous screening system for job applicants. This is particularly essential since health care as an industry is already almost one-fifth of the entire US economy and our aging population means that more and more Americans will be relying on services like these in the years to come. For the sake of our parents and grandparents now – and, eventually, for our own sakes as well – government at all levels needs to look at cases like this one in Washington County to ensure that something like this never happens again.