Background Checks Sought For Health Workers

Attorney General Spitzer today pressed for passage of a bill to protect nursing home residents and the house-bound elderly from violent and abusive health care workers.

Spitzer was joined by relatives of victims and advocates for the elderly in urging passage of legislation to require nursing homes to do a better job of screening prospective employees.

"A simple background check could vastly improve the safety and security of our parents and grandparents in nursing homes," Spitzer said. "We owe it to our elders to take basic steps that could protect them from violence and abuse."

Spitzer noted that 33 other states have laws requiring criminal background checks of nurse's aides and health care workers. He said that the legislation could prevent situations like the repeated rape of a 92-year-old woman in an Oneida nursing home. The man convicted of the crimes was a nurse's aide with a criminal record that included a sex crime.

The daughter of the victim in the Oneida case attended an Albany news conference with the Attorney General and urged passage of the legislation: "Background checks on nurse's aides could have saved my mother from an unspeakable crime," said Margaret Brown. "I urge lawmakers to pass this bill as soon as possible to prevent a similar outrage from happening to someone else. The man who raped my mother has been convicted. But she suffered horribly and needlessly from a crime that could easily have been prevented."

The push for background checks on nurse's aides was hailed by advocates for the elderly, including the American Association for Retired Persons.

Hyman Kuritz, AARP State Legislative Chair, said: "AARP commends Attorney General Spitzer on his legislative efforts to strengthen protections to our vulnerable citizens by requiring criminal history reports on new nurse aides. This information will better equip agencies to screen new employees who provide direct care to our frail older citizens and the disabled."

Attorney General Spitzer has proposed legislation that would:

  • Require that the nurse aide registry administered by the state Department of Health obtain a criminal history check by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services on each new nurse's aide and impose the same requirement on home care service agencies hiring new employees for jobs with direct care and supervision of patients;
  • Require the nurse aide registry and home care service agencies to obtain a signed, sworn statement from each new registrant or job applicant listing all previous convictions in any jurisdiction and providing personal identifying information;
  • Authorize the nurse aide registry and home care service agencies to obtain a criminal history report based on either the fingerprints or the personal identifying information -- name, social security number, date of birth, etc. -- contained in a signed, sworn statement;
  • Hold harmless those employers who choose not to hire a nurse's aide based on their reliance on information provided in a background check by the Division of Criminal Justice Services; and
  • Make the cost of the background check reimbursable under Medicaid.

The Attorney General's Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU), under the direction of Deputy Attorney General Jose Maldonado, is responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of patient abuse in New York's 600 nursing homes. Last year, the Unit received 1,600 complaints of patient abuse of which 131 became the subject of investigation. To date, 26 prosecutions have resulted from those complaints.

MFCU Director Maldonado said, "During the last 10 years, my Unit has prosecuted over 230 health care workers for abuse or violence against the elderly. In conducting criminal background checks on these defendants, we discovered that 25-percent of them had prior arrests for crimes that included the sale of drugs, sexual abuse and felony assault."

Sample Cases of Elderly Abuse by Health Care Workers with Criminal Backgrounds

  • ALBANY -- In June 1996, Nelson Simon, an Albany-area nurse's aide trainee was arrested for striking and groping a 92-year old female patient. Simon had a lengthy criminal history involving three separate stabbings and convictions for DWI, Child Endangerment, and for the beating death of a pet, and served a three-year sentence for First Degree Assault. Simon made no mention of the convictions on his job application.

  • BUFFALO -- In October 1999, Barbara Kane, a Niagara County nurse's aide, was arrested for Criminally Negligent Homicide for causing the death of a 95-year old patient. Kane failed to properly secure the patient with safety belts in a lift chair. The patient fell from the lift chair onto the floor, suffered multiple fractures and died a week later from complications associated with her injuries. Kane's prior criminal record included Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance, Criminal Possession of a Weapon, and DWI.

  • ONEIDA -- In February 2000, Arthur Wallace, a certified nurse's aide at an Oneida nursing home, was arrested for repeatedly raping a 92-year old female patient during a two-month period in 1997. Wallace's criminal record included a court martial from the U.S. Army for lewd and lascivious contact with a minor (sentenced to Leavenworth Federal Prison); convicted of Possession of a Weapon. Wallace was convicted in May 2000 of five counts of First Degree Rape.

  • ROCHESTER -- In September 1995, John Horace, a nurse's aide raped and sexually abused a 29-year old comatose patient at a Rochester nursing home. This was the first known case of impregnation of a comatose patient. DNA evidence linked Horace to the crime and he was convicted in February 1996. Horace had been previously convicted of fraud but had lied about his criminal record on his nursing home job application.

  • ORANGE COUNTY -- In February 2000, Joanne Morawski, a registered nurse at the Orange County Home and Infirmary Hospice in Goshen, was arrested for taking a powerful narcotic patch off the chest of a 73-year old patient. She later told investigators she stole the patch for her own use. Morawski failed to note on her employment application that she had previously been convicted of stealing patients' prescribed medications.

  • SARATOGA COUNTY -- In March 1999, Jan Demerse, a former nurse's aide at a Ballston Spa nursing home pleaded guilty to abusing several patients at the home. During the investigation of the abuse case, Demerse confessed to raping a mentally retarded woman he met while she was visiting her grandmother at the nursing home. He pleaded guilty to Third Degree Rape. Demerse had a criminal record that included being imprisoned for larceny and forgery.

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