What Constitutes ‘Sexual Abuse’ in West Virginia Nursing Homes?
The prevalence of sexual abuse of older residents in nursing homes in West Virginia and across the country is difficult to determine.
In a research brief, the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA) states that seven percent of complaints of abuse in U.S. nursing homes allege sexual abuse (basing that figure on data from the National Ombudsman Reporting System).
However, it is widely believed that sexual abuse of elderly nursing home residents goes largely undetected or unreported. This is true for many reasons.
According to one legal scholar, those reasons include the victim's:
- Inability to report the abuse due to diminished cognitive abilities
- Fear of retribution (such as being evicted from the home)
- Feeling of powerlessness
- Sense of shame and embarrassment.
In another study recently published in the journal, Nursing Research and Practice, researchers who reviewed literature on this issue identified other reasons for underreporting of sexual abuse in nursing homes, including:
- Nursing homes simply failing to follow up on complaints
- Adult Protective Services investigators lacking the training to determine if sexual abuse has actually occurred
- The failure of fellow residents and family members to detect the abuse.
Interestingly, the same researchers indicated that there may be another reason: People may simply not know what constitutes "sexual abuse" in a nursing home.
NCEA and West Virginia Definitions of 'Sexual Abuse'
When determining what amounts to nursing home "sexual abuse," a good place to start may be the NCEA, which is a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging.
The NCEA defines it as "non-consensual sexual contact of any kind with an elderly person" and notes that sexual contact with a person who is "incapable of giving consent" can also be constitute sexual abuse. According to the NCEA, different types of sexual abuse include:
- Unwanted touching
- All types of sexual assault or battery (rape, sodomy and coerced nudity)
- Sexually explicit photographing.
Adult Protective Services (APS) in West Virginia offers a slightly different definition. APS defines sexual abuse as "[t]he coercion of an incapacitated adult into having sexual contact with the perpetrator or another person." APS further states that a caregiver "must be involved either directly (i.e. as the perpetrator or sexual partner) or indirectly (by allowing or enabling the conditions which result in the sexual coercion)."
These are both helpful definitions. An important element in both definitions is the victim's inability to give consent. After all, many nursing home residents suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease or other mental and physical infirmities.
However, can sexual abuse also include situations in which there is no contact? For instance, could it occur when a person:
- Exposes his or her genitals to the resident
- Makes unwanted sexual remarks towards a resident
- Forces a resident to watch a live sexual act or view pornography?
While this conduct may not cause a nursing home resident to suffer physical harm, it could cause serious psychological damage.
What You Should Know About Sexual Abuse in Nursing Homes
In order to get a better understanding of what constitutes "sexual abuse" of nursing home residents, we should consider two additional principles:
- It can happen to anyone, regardless of gender - As the Nursing Research and Practice article notes, studies have shown that, while the majority of sexual abuse victims are female, males can suffer this form of abuse as well. Unfortunately, due to reasons that include the victim's embarrassment, older men may be less likely to report the abuse.
- Anyone can commit this abuse, including staff and fellow residents - The primary concern, of course, is caregivers taking advantage of vulnerable nursing home residents. This is why West Virginia nursing homes are required to conduct criminal background checks before hiring staff members. However, residents can sexually abuse other residents as well. In fact, it may happen more than we realize.
In a study published last year, Cornell researchers reported surveying nursing home residents in 10 facilities across the state of New York. Based on the survey results, the researchers concluded that one in five residents had been subjected to "resident-to-resident elder mistreatment." Out of those cases, 1.3 percent involved "sexual incidents, such as exposing one's genitals, touching other residents or attempting to gain sexual favors."
You Can Take Action If Your Elderly Loved One Has Been Sexually Abused
Based on their review of studies, the authors of the Nursing Research and Practice article found that, shockingly, "only a few perpetrators were held accountable" for sexual abuse of nursing home residents. In fact, even in situations where there were witnesses, the perpetrators faced no legal consequences.
Staff members who were perpetrators may have been merely fired, placed on leave or moved to a different job. Victims may have simply been moved to a new wing of the nursing home, with little to no medical and psychological treatment for the harm caused by the abuse. The nursing homes, too, may have faced no repercussions because the incident went unreported to the proper authorities.
This is why you must be vigilant if your friend or elderly family member is a resident of a West Virginia nursing home.
It starts by being on the lookout for any signs of potential sexual abuse. According to West Virginia APS, these signs include:
- Bruises in areas such as the breasts or genitals
- Venereal disease or genital infection
- Vaginal/anal bleeding
- Undergarments that are bloody, stained or torn.
If you suspect sexual abuse has occurred or is ongoing, you should contact law enforcement and file a report with APS by calling its 24-hour hotline at (800) 352-6513.
You do not have to worry about any criminal or civil consequences as long as you make your report "in good faith." You also don't have to worry about your identity being revealed.
In addition to reporting the sexual abuse, you should also contact an attorney who has experience with nursing home abuse and neglect cases. The attorney can monitor investigations into the abuse and, ultimately, take steps to protect the legal rights of the nursing home resident and his or her family members.
These rights include the ability to seek just compensation for any harm caused by a nursing home that allows sexual abuse of residents to occur within its facility.