The statistics about elder abuse in the United States are shocking. What is even worse than the numbers that we know is the situation of which we are not aware. Most elder abuse cases will go unreported, allowing the perpetrator to get away with their criminal acts. This is not the fault of the victim, and it is generally not the fault of the family. The nature of elder abuse means that some of it may never see the light of day.
Elder abuse can be broadly defined to encompass many types of illegal behaviors. According to the American Psychological Association, there are seven different types of elder abuse.
Seniors Can Be Victims in Their Own Homes or in Nursing Homes
Elder abuse can happen anywhere. Seniors who live in their own homes can become victims at the hands of caregivers or anyone else in their lives. The risk here is that there is nobody else who may detect the abuse since the senior is living alone. Their helplessness makes them a target of those who have bad intentions. While they are seemingly independent, they may struggle to manage their own affairs, including things like paying the bills and checking activity in their own accounts.
Many of these types of abuse are illegal no matter where they happen. For example, sexual abuse and physical abuse would be charged under criminal statutes if the perpetrator gets caught. Financial exploitation could constitute fraud or theft and could also result in a jail sentence for the person charged with the abuse.
Nursing Homes Can Face Fines and Punishments for Abuse
Not only are some of these behaviors criminal, but when they occur in a care facility, they can also result in civil penalties for the nursing home. Federal nursing home regulations promise residents and their families that they are entitled to an environment that is free of any kind of abuse. Whenever nursing homes learn that abuse occurred, they must make an immediate report to the relevant state authorities for an investigation. They do not have the legal right to stonewall or slow down the investigation process given the seriousness with which the law views nursing home abuse.
A review of nursing home inspection reports and state legal actions show numerous instances in which nursing homes did not report suspected abuse within the required timeframe or even at all. In some cases, the resident suffered severe harm at the hands of nursing home staff. For whatever reason, the nursing home failed to comply with the law, perhaps thinking that they could make the problem go away.
You Can File a Lawsuit Against the Nursing Home for Abuse
Nursing homes can face a third punishment for allowing abuse—families can file a lawsuit against the nursing home or assisted living facility where the abuse occurred. The nursing home has a legal obligation to protect its residents from any kind of abuse. This includes abuse perpetrated by their staff or even a fellow resident. If your loved one is injured by abuse when under the care of a nursing home, you may be entitled to financial compensation for it.
As you can see, there are reasons why nursing homes will not cooperate with you when you are trying to get to the bottom of suspected abuse. The financial and reputational consequences for them are very real, and many nursing homes are not interested in doing the right thing. Instead, they are focused on protecting their own bottom line. Therefore, when you are trying to document your suspicions and get to the bottom of a loved one’s suspected abuse, you may most likely be on your own.
In a Civil Lawsuit, You Will Need to Prove that the Abuse Occurred
However, if you suspect abuse, you will have certain obligations if you try to pursue a civil lawsuit against the nursing home. You do not need to document your claims if you are merely reporting your suspicions to the state for investigation. However, you will have a burden of proof in a civil lawsuit. The standard of proof is that you will need to show that it is more likely than not that your claims are true and your loved one’s injury happened due to nursing home abuse.
With that in mind, you are wondering how you can document evidence of abuse at a nursing home or assisted living facility. The amount and quality of your evidence can determine whether you receive financial compensation. Unfortunately, if that evidence is difficult to obtain, it will not lower your burden of proof or mean that you do not have to show that the nursing home was responsible.
Get Help When You Suspect Abuse
Nursing home abuse is not something that you should face alone. Every article on the topic tells you that you need to be vigilant and alert, and we will do the same. However, the image of you and your family members of lone investigators misses the mark.
In reality, there are numerous people that you can go to for help if you think that something is wrong. You may not know if what you have seen merits a report or is even abuse at all. You may simply need to relay your suspicions to someone and want a professional opinion about your situation.
Where You Can Turn for Help
There are a couple of places where you can turn for help. You may have a nursing home ombudsman in your state. There is an ombudsman in every state, and they are a resource for families who are experiencing issues with the nursing home where their loved one is. They serve as an advocate for families, so they are a good place to go for a conversation if you are unsure of what is happening.
Another person to talk to would be a nursing home abuse lawyer. They can help by telling you what to look for if you suspect abuse. The good thing about speaking with an attorney is that they can work with you with an eye towards an eventual civil lawsuit. They can advise you on how best to document abuse not just in a way that would put a stop to it but also in a manner that could help your cause of action against the nursing home.
Be Vigilant to Spot and Report Abuse
While many experts place the onus on the family to detect abuse, we realize that it is a tall task. Simply stated, abuse is not something that you would ordinarily be trying to find. Moreover, if the mistreatment is well-hidden, we do not want you blaming yourself for what you could not see.
However, when your loved one is in a long-term care facility, you always need to keep an eye out for everything that affects your loved one. Certain things are easier to spot than others. For example, if your loved one suffered physical abuse, you may spot bruises. Other forms of abuse are more difficult to notice.
For example, emotional and sexual abuse are hard to spot unless your loved one tells you what happened. This is not always possible when many nursing home residents struggle with dementia and have lower verbal ability than they used to have.
Signs of Elder Abuse
This is where you need to try to spot the signs of abuse.
- Signs of unexplained physical bruising or fractures
- Your loved one becomes very agitated or fearful when a certain staff member is around
- Your loved one’s sleeping or eating habits suddenly change, and they begin to lose weight or have insomnia
- You notice that your loved one’s bearing and disposition has changed, and they become withdrawn
- One or more staff members are very brusque to or physically manhandle your loved one.
- Your family member appears disheveled and dirty and looks like they are losing significant amounts of weight.
When you spot the signs of abuse, you need to take steps to document them. This is what can help prove your abuse case, and it becomes the basis for your report to the relevant authority.
Here are some ways that you can document the abuse:
- Keep a journal of everything that you see. Type up your notes so you can have some metadata and time stamps of when you wrote them.
- Observe your loved one on consecutive days to get multiple comparison points.
- Take pictures of what you see, especially when you notice signs of bruising.
- If the abuse is financial, check account statements regularly.
- Obtain medical records that you can use to show your loved one’s physical condition. This is important when it comes to proving the extent of your injuries.
- Take down any witness information that you can find and interview people who you think may let you know what is happening.
- Make records of any conversations that you have with nursing home staff and authorities.
Ask a nursing home abuse attorney what evidence may be relevant in your case. It is better to have this in your possession at the time that you contact the state to file a complaint.
However, you should never wait to report a possible case of abuse while you investigate because you do not have documentation. In some cases, prompt reporting of abuse can make the difference between life and death. While we tell families to document everything, we do not mean to suggest that families try to assume the role of state investigators. This is more about how you can work through your suspicions to where you feel ready to file a complaint. Delaying the complaint too long, however, can put your loved one’s life in danger.
Save Evidence for a Possible Nursing Abuse Claim
Preserve all evidence associated with the abuse. If you have any evidence on your cell phone, make sure to copy and transfer it elsewhere so that you do not lose it. Keep all other evidence in a safe place and make multiple copies of it. Keep the copies of any evidence in different places. An attorney can tell you what evidence you need to preserve and how to keep it.
Ask Professionals for Help
One piece of advice that we can give is that it is better to get professionals involved in your case sooner rather than later. There is no need to face elder abuse on your own. The quicker that you report any evidence of suspected abuse, the better the professionals can investigate the facts.
This means that you should report the abuse the instant that you suspect it. Then, the state may send their own investigators to the facility, and the nursing home cannot stonewall them. If they try, they will be facing serious legal consequences, and their punishment will be much worse than it otherwise would have been.
Do not investigate on your own. You might not know what to look for in an abuse case. If the state investigation establishes abuse and the nursing home faces penalties for it, that could go a long way to proving your civil case.
Of course, your family could stand to receive significant financial compensation if you can prove that there was nursing home abuse that resulted in your loved one’s injuries. Not only could it help your family financially, but it could also be a way of holding the nursing home legally accountable and getting justice for what the nursing home did to your family member. This is why you need to contact a nursing home abuse attorney if you suspect that your loved one suffered mistreatment or harm.