Women Chapter Desk:
In America, the senior citizens come to nursing homes to be cared for.
Instead, they are sexually assaulted.
It’s impossible to know just how many victims are out there. But through an exclusive analysis of state and federal data and interviews with experts, regulators and the families of victims, CNN has found that this little-discussed issue is more widespread than anyone would imagine.
Even more disturbing: In many cases, nursing homes and the government officials who oversee them are doing little — or nothing — to stop it.
Sometimes pure — and even willful — negligence is at work. In other instances, nursing home employees and administrators are hamstrung in their efforts to protect victims who can’t remember exactly what happened to them or even identify their perpetrators.
It’s systemic failures that make it especially hard for victims to get justice — and even easier for perpetrators to get away with their crimes.
“At 83 years old, unable to speak, unable to fight back, she was even more vulnerable than she was as a little girl fleeing her homeland. In fact, she was as vulnerable as an infant when she was raped. The dignity which she always displayed during her life, which was already being assaulted so unrelentingly by Alzheimer’s disease, was dealt a final devastating blow by this man. The horrific irony is not lost upon me … that the very thing she feared most as a young girl fleeing her homeland happened to her in the final, most vulnerable days of her life.”
Maya Fischer made this statement in court at the 2015 sentencing of a nursing assistant convicted of raping her mother. Choking back tears, Fischer detailed her mother’s story — recounting how she had fled Indonesia as a youth with her family to escape the rape and killing of young girls by Japanese soldiers, only to fall victim decades later to a man whose job was to care for her.
A fellow caregiver saw male nursing assistant George Kpingbah in 83-year-old Sonja Fischer’s room at 4:30 a.m. on December 18, 2014, at the Walker Methodist Health Center in Minneapolis. A bare leg was on each side of his hips, and her adult diaper lay open on the bed. When the witness noticed the 76-year-old aide thrusting back and forth, she said she knew a sexual assault was occurring.
Kpingbah ultimately pleaded guilty to third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a mentally impaired or helpless victim and was sentenced to eight years in prison. In an emotional statement directed at Kpingbah during sentencing, the judge told him he had done more than ravage the lives of his victim and her family. He had betrayed the public trust granted to caregivers who have such intimate access to the sick and elderly.
Kpingbah apologized at the hearing and said he planned to take his Bible with him to prison. His attorney asked for leniency. Kpingbah had endured his own personal struggles as a refugee, the attorney said, fleeing Liberia after many of his family members were killed. Kpingbah’s one “unspeakable act,” he told the judge, was completely out of character.
Yet in court documents uncovered by CNN, prosecutors revealed it wasn’t the first time Kpingbah had been investigated over sexual assault allegations. Personnel records obtained by prosecutors during the investigation and reviewed by CNN show Kpingbah was suspended three times as Walker Methodist officials investigated repeated accusations of sexual abuse at the facility, including at least two where he was the main suspect.
Maya Fischer had no way of knowing about the previous allegations against Kpingbah uncovered by CNN. But she sued Kpingbah, who agreed to an unusual arrangement in which he is on the hook for a massive $15 million judgment only if he abuses again.
CNN reached out to family members of other residents who earlier reported they were sexually assaulted at Walker Methodist during the time Kpingbah worked there (though he was not deemed a suspect in every case). They said the officials there were quick to dismiss the residents’ claims as hallucinations or fantasies.
“Walker Methodist certainly failed to handle this appropriately with my mother and other residents, and there should be consequences,” said the son of the first alleged victim after learning of Kpingbah’s rape conviction from CNN.
A son of a different alleged victim, who had accused an unknown perpetrator, said he was irate he was never told that a pattern of complaints had emerged against a single caregiver. Had he known of this pattern, the son said, he would have taken his mother’s report of abuse more seriously. Instead, he trusted Walker Methodist.
The Minnesota Department of Health told CNN it is barred by state law from releasing the identity of anyone investigated over an allegation that has not been substantiated, regardless of the number of allegations.
But both family members of these two alleged sexual assault victims also questioned the state health department. How effective is its oversight if it was aware of the multiple reports of abuse at Walker Methodist and still could not intervene?
When pressed by CNN, the agency said that the reports occurred during a time when a paper system was used and that it has been working to modernize this system in the hopes of “flagging such patterns.”
Some accounts of alleged sexual abuse come from civil and criminal court documents filed against nursing homes, assisted living facilities and individuals who work there. Other incidents are buried in detailed reports filed by state health investigators.
Most of the cases examined by CNN involved lone actors. But in some cases, a mob mentality fueled the abuse. And it’s not just women who have been victimized.
CNN FOUND MORE THAN 1,000 NURSING HOMES HAVE BEEN CITED FOR MISHANDLING SUSPECTED CASES OF SEX ABUSE.
For months, a group of male nursing aides at a California facility abused and humiliated five male residents — taking videos and photos to share with other staff members. One victim, a 56-year-old with cerebral palsy, was paraded around naked. Another, an elderly man with paralysis who struggled to speak was pinched on his nipples and penis and forced to eat feces out of his adult diapers. He was terrified his abusers would kill him. While the aides lost their certifications, an investigation by Disability Rights California found that many of them never faced charges.
It’s rarely talked about, but sexual assault in the very facilities tasked with caring for the elderly is hardly a new problem, with cases dating back decades.
It’s happening all over the country. In cities, the suburbs and the countryside. In nursing homes housing low-income residents on Medicaid. And in centers where people pay thousands of dollars out of their own savings to be there. They’re owned by huge corporations and regional chains but also by nonprofits and mom-and-pop small business owners.
And the issue is only becoming more pressing as the elderly population booms, with the number of Americans over age 65 projected to more than double between 2010 and 2050.