Curbing Abuse Of Elderly

New Law Invoked To Punish Caretaker

November 24, 1991|By Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich | Jay Apperson and JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writers

Bedridden with a degenerative disease, her mind clouded by a crippling stroke, Else Hemminger tended to ramble and make up stories in herlater days. It wasn't unusual for her to complain that her nursing aide, Michele Graves, was "mean."

"She did that with a lot of the nurses. I didn't know how much to make of it," said her son, Edgar Hemminger. "In this case, there was something to it."

Graves would be charged with pinching and punching, pushing and shoving, cursing and threatening two dozen elderly residents at the Annapolis Convalescent Center.

And she would be the first health-care worker in Anne Arundel County to be taken to court under the "vulnerable adult-abuse law."

Until the abuse law was enacted two years ago, brutalizing the elderly and infirm was not specifically outlawed. While some abuses were covered under laws against assault and battery, prosecutors and advocates for the aging said they needed tougher legislation to fight rising violence against seniors. They believe the new adult-abuse law sends a powerful message in identifying a classof victims, much in the way child-abuse laws do.

Still, authorities have found that the law is not a cure-all.

It applies only to "contractual" caretakers, largely interpreted to mean nursing home employees. And it has not erased the obstacles to investigating and prosecuting these cases.

A conviction under the vulnerable adult-abuselaw, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. But only one person, a man convicted of punchingthree elderly, chronically ill men while working at two Baltimore nursing homes, has gone to prison for abusing nursing home residents.

More often, as in the Graves case, prosecutors have to settle for pleas with no jail time because their leverage to negotiate a tougher plea is undercut by the conditions of the victims, many of whom are senile or have Alzheimer's disease.

Sometimes, seniors who have been shoved into bed, kicked or neglected by a nursing attendant are afraid to testify. Sometimes, they just can't remember.

Sgt. Charles R. Blevins, who heads the county's child- and elderly-abuse investigations, said: "We'll go in and say, 'Were you beaten by an attendant?'And they'll say, 'Yes.' So we'll say, 'Did Roger Rabbit hold you down,' and they'll say, 'Yes.'

"I'm not joking. They just can't remember. They can't even remember what they had for breakfast."

Prosecutors say forcing some victims to testify would literally kill them.

Timothy X. Sokas, who prosecutes cases for the state Attorney General's office, recalls one doctor urging him to avoid putting a 68-year-old woman with a bad heart on the witness stand. To do so would endanger the woman's life, the doctor said.

Sokas avoided a trial andaccepted a plea in the case.

And prosecutors know physical injuries are not proof of abuse. Very frail seniors in their 80s and 90s often have such fragile skin that the slightest touch can leave a bruise. A fall can break their brittle bones.

When several residents have been hurt or a co-worker has seen the abuse, prosecution is easier, Blevins said. Most of the accused nursing assistants have confessed, although they usually deny the charges at first.

In the Graves case, the job stresses that led to abusive behavior and the plea bargain that allowed her to walk out of the courthouse a free woman are typical of the handful of criminal prosecutions of nursing home employees in Maryland.

After pleading guilty in September to three countsof vulnerable-adult abuse, Graves received a three-year suspended sentence. The 21-year-old Annapolis woman was placed on five years' supervised probation under the condition that she not work again in a nursing home.

Graves didn't offer any explanation for the abuse during or after the hearing. Her lawyer, Gill Cochran, told the court hisclient attacked the residents because she "lost control" after working a number of double shifts when the nursing home was short-staffed.

Court records show Graves' abusive acts were in response to residents placing a dinner tray on a bed, refusing to eat and being uncooperative. In one case, she tripped a 90-year-old woman who was trying to pass her in a hallway.

The woman, who was using a walker, fell into a wall after Graves kicked and tripped her, a prosecutor said.

Edgar Hemminger frequently visited his mother in the nursing home. He remembers Michele Graves.

"I saw this woman every day and I would say hello to her. I would acknowledge to her that this was a toughjob," said the 51-year-old engineer from Annapolis.

One day, the nursing home suddenly called him in to the office. He learned of the abuses, including a grotesque threat Graves allegedly made to his mother, warning she'd "chop off" Else Hemminger's limbs and use them to beat her son in the head.

He wonders whether this was just anotherwild story told by his mother but is convinced the nursing aide intimidated and threatened her.

"This was like a betrayal," he said.

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