July 22, 2008 -- Hundreds of thousands of senior citizens are at risk because they are living among registered sex offenders, parolees and residents with violent histories, according to a nursing home watchdog who studied residents at nursing homes, assisted living homes and long term care facilities.
"What is shocking is we have now found 1,600 registered sex offenders across the country [in facilities with seniors]," said Wes Bledsoe, who is set to testify tomorrow at a Congressional hearing on predators in these facilities. Bledsoe tracked the number of offenders living at these homes over the past four years by matching addresses from sex offender registries with a database of care facilities from Medicare.
Bledsoe said that in many of these cases the offenders are young adults who are often placed in the facilities because of disabilities or behavioral problems.
"We found teenagers, two nineteen year olds living in these facilities, many in their twenties, thirties, and forties," Bledsoe said.
"We have also documented over 60 rapes, murders, and assaults committed by criminal offenders in these facilities," he said.
Pennsylvania Attorney Sean McDonough will appear at the hearing to speak about Lillian Guernsey, who was 86 years-old in 2002 when she was raped by another resident at a Pennsylvania facility. The assailant, a 31 year old fellow resident, had eight prior adult arrests, three convictions and two adult commitments to correctional facilities before he arrived at the home, according to McDonough's statement. Her assailant is now in prison, convicted of rape and sexual assault.
And six years to the day after her elderly mother was raped in a Florida nursing home, Sandra Banning will also testify.
Banning said she had no choice but to place her mother Virginia Thurston in a nursing home after Thurston, who suffered from dementia, was repeatedly found wandering the streets alone in the middle of the night.
"Growing up, Momma always said, 'If you place me in a nursing home, I'd never forgive you'," said Banning. "But that's what we had to do for her safety."
Banning, 60, said she had no idea that the facility she placed her mother in was also the home of a violent offender with a history of arrests. She found out after nursing home staff called her July 23, 2002 to tell her the offender had raped Thurston, then 77, in her bed.
"They found him right in the act," said Banning. "This man was 83 years-old and in a wheelchair. Not someone you'd think would be a rapist."
But Banning says it was only after the rape occurred that she found out the man had been arrested 58 times and that a court ordered him to move from a homeless shelter into the assisted-living facility.
Banning said she'll never forget the "look of terror" in her mother's eyes when she had to explain to her that she had been raped or the moment when she had to hold her mother's hand inside a sexual assault response center when she was examined.
"I think that at that point reality was there and she knew what was going on," Banning said of her mother, who didn't recall the rape because of her dementia. "The tears were streaming out of her eyes."
Banning says that despite physical evidence of sexual assault, the man was found incompetent to stand trial and has since been relocated to another Florida nursing home. She won a civil suit against the nursing home in the amount of $750,000 last year, which has not yet been paid out.
"She was my best friend," said Banning of her mother, who passed away in 2003. "After that happened, I had such guilt from putting her away where that could happen. So I vowed that I would make a change."
Tomorrow, Banning will tell her story to Congress, an opportunity she calls "awesome." And when she retires August 1 from her job as a medical staff manager for the Navy Medicine Support Command, she says she will "take up predators in nursing homes full-time."
"I believe that's why God put me here on this Earth," said Banning, fighting off tears. "It may be trips back and forth to Washington, but I'd go to the moon if I had to. Because someday it could be me; it could be you."
"There is no law, federal or state, that keeps violent or sexual offenders out of long-term care facilities as residents," said Bledsoe, who founded the citizens' advocacy organization A Perfect Cause in 2001 after his grandmother died in an Oklahoma City nursing home from what he says were negligent acts. A civil suit against the facility was settled out of court.
"The problem we have is that these offenders are being warehoused in nursing homes because the excuse is, 'Well, where else are we going to put them?'"
Bledsoe will present his findings on what he calls a "national disgrace" to the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight tomorrow. In his prepared testimony, Bledsoe calls for the establishment of separate and secure long-term care facilities for violent and sexual offenders, criminal background checks for all residents, and notification of offenders residing in the facilities, among other recommendations.
Bledsoe said that offenders are placed in long-term care facilities by district court judges, county sheriffs, adult protective services workers, and corrections workers, as well as by offenders themselves and their families. And he said that while these offenders deserve care, seniors living in the homes deserve protection.
"I hope that some of the congressional leaders don't sleep soundly tomorrow," said Bledsoe, "and that this makes an impression on them that right now, in this moment, we have people in harm's way."
Rep. Mary Fallin (R-OK), who organized tomorrow's hearing, issued a statement today in which she described seniors living in long-term care facilities as "some of the most vulnerable of our citizens."
"The rare cases of sexual assault and abuse that have been documented in these facilities are particularly abhorrent," said Fallin, adding that the hearing will "investigate both the scope of the problem and the possible roles the federal government might play to eliminate it."
Joining Bledsoe to speak at the hearing will also be Oklahoma State Representative Kris Steele, who authored legislation passed in Oklahoma in May to establish separate living facilities for registered sex offenders. The state is now preparing a request for private bids to build such a facility.
Megan Chuchmach is a 2008 Carnegie Fellow at ABC News in New York. She recently graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.