California ombudsman Nona Tolentino’s job is to investigate cases of suspected elder abuse in nursing homes. Her conclusion after years as in the business: be afraid, be very afraid.
The biggest problem Tolentino faces is trying to prove the allegations. “I call it the conspiracy of silence,” she said, because many nursing home residents and their family are reluctant to talk about, frequently out of concerns of retaliation or being evicted from the facility. Tolentino believes strongly that nursing home residents have fundamental rights to be free from physical and verbal abuse, unnecessary restraints, or involuntary seclusion.
Tolentino is mostly right. If one were to visit the local office of the California Department of Public Health and pull the file of any large nursing home in the region where they lived, they would be startled by the number of complaints made and investigated. More troubling, however, would be the realization that the vast majority of complaints are “unsubstantiated;” meaning the investigator could not prove the allegations are true.
This is a real problem. Not that every complaint is meritorious, but that the investigation and enforcement of these complaints is very inadequate. In our office, we have litigated numerous cases involving horrendous cases of neglect or abuse where a formal state investigation had previously found no wrongdoing. Sadly, because of California’s budget woes, this probably will not change anytime soon.