Deb knew something was wrong with her aunt but wasn’t exactly sure what.
The elderly woman – a resident of a Chatham long-term care home at the time – seemed depressed and withdrawn, even though she was normally chatty.
“She wouldn’t even make eye contact,” said Deb (the Daily News is withholding her last name to protect the identity of her late relative).
“It was not the aunt I was used to seeing. And at that point, I was in there easily four times a week. I knew there was something not right.”
Deb was at work when she received a call from a staff member at Copper Terrace. She was told there had been an incident involving her aunt but says she was urged not to worry. Her aunt, the personal support worker said, was fine.
“At the meeting we asked for and attended later that day, the senior nurse admin read a line or two off the computer and they immediately didn’t correlate with what I had been told by the PSW early that morning,” Deb said.
“I reached out to the ministry right after the meeting,” she added, noting she believed she hadn’t been told the whole story.
Deb claims her aunt had been sexually assaulted by another resident of Copper Terrace in October 2016 – an assault that wasn’t handled properly nor reported to police.
Although not considered a criminal matter due to the other resident’s medical issues and state of mind, a civil settlement was eventually reached with the care home late last year. The home had denied any wrongdoing in a legal statement of defence.
The Ministry of Long-Term Care also conducted an inspection, ultimately issuing a number of orders and requesting voluntary plans of correction.
According to the legal statement of claim filed as part of the original lawsuit, Deb’s aunt suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and short-term memory loss.
“She was also in poor physical health and required a wheelchair,” the statement read. “(An) employee of the defendants entered the plaintiff’s room to find a male resident naked and in the plaintiff’s bed with her. His hands were under the blankets and he was touching the plaintiff.”
The plaintiff, who was 89 years old at the time, reportedly could not call for help due to her physical and cognitive disabilities.
“The employee who found the perpetrator in the plaintiff’s bed required assistance in order to move him. Instead of using the ‘call’ button, the employee left the male resident in the bed with the plaintiff to find another employee who could assist her, permitting the assault to continue.
“The plaintiff has suffered physical, mental, psychological and emotional stress, shock and suffering,” the claim added.
In the statement of defence, the home denied “each and every allegation in the statement (of) claim and put the plaintiff to the strict proof thereof.”
It also maintained the defendants “acted reasonably in the treatment and care provided to the plaintiff and in accordance with accepted standards at all material times.”
According to a ministry inspection report, which involved interviews with staff and a review of records, the home failed to ensure compliance with the home’s written policy concerning zero tolerance of abuse and neglect of residents.
The policy requiring staff to immediately report alleged abuse to management, inform the resident’s representative of the investigation’s status, notify police and the ministry, and document and provide “comprehensive review of the competency of residents involved, past history and perceived risk” was not followed.
The inspection report indicated that staff at the home were of the view “there was no risk to the resident” and that there was no abuse.
In addition, the home was deemed to have failed to ensure that behavioural triggers were identified, strategies were implemented, and that assessments, reassessments and responses were documented.
The clinical record showed the offending resident “had a history of these specific responsive behaviours prior to the incident, that the assessment section of the electronic documentation system included no behavioural assessments, and that the plan of care did not include these responsive behaviours.”
The home was requested to prepare a written plan of correction to ensure the “appropriate police force is immediately notified of any alleged, suspected or witnessed incident of abuse or neglect of a resident that the licensee suspects may constitute a criminal offence, to be implemented voluntarily.”
They were also required to prepare a plan to ensure anyone who has “reasonable grounds” to suspect abuse of a resident by anyone – or neglect of a resident by the home or staff that resulted in harm or a risk of harm – immediately reported this to the director.
Mary Raithby, CEO of Apans Health Services, which operates Copper Terrace, said she couldn’t discuss the specifics of the alleged sexual assault due to privacy and confidentiality.
“We take each inspection report seriously and our team at Copper Terrace successfully implemented improvements to address the items noted in our inspection report,” she said in an email. “Resident-to-resident interactions in long-term care are often challenging and can be unpredictable.
“All of our staff members are focused on providing quality care for our residents and work extremely hard within a sector that is very demanding.”
In a statement, the Ministry of Long-Term Care also said it couldn’t comment on individual situations, but stressed any abuse or neglect of vulnerable seniors is unacceptable.
“The Ministry of Long-Term Care is committed to ensuring that Ontarians in long-term care homes live in a safe and secure environment,” the statement read.
“The ministry conducts an immediate inspection if we receive information that there is serious harm, or significant risk of serious harm, to a resident. There are numerous provisions in the Long-Term Care Homes Act, 2007 that are designed to ensure residents are protected from abuse, neglect or harm. All homes are required to have measures in place to protect residents from serious harm or risk of harm.
“Depending on the circumstances and the information available, ministry inspectors may notify the police of any alleged, suspected or witnessed incident of abuse or neglect of a resident in a long-term care home that may constitute a criminal offence. The police would independently determine whether an investigation is warranted.”
The ministry added that transparency related to inspections of facilities is crucial, so finalized reports are uploaded to a public website.
Michelle Schryer, executive director of the Chatham-Kent Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, said sexual assaults within long-term care homes aren’t uncommon in the province.
“Workers and administration have tried to educate themselves,” she said. “But even before COVID, it wasn’t always possible for that to happen.”
She said the centre will offer training about dealing with sexual abuse to any organization that asks.
“Certainly, we’re glad to do that whenever we can,” she said. “If long-term care administrators wanted to have virtual training, that’s the way it is right now. They’re welcome to call.”
As for the grey areas, or when to contact police, Schryer said homes “provide a service. Police are the investigators.”
“If there is an allegation, I think that there is a responsibility to make the police aware.”
If a loved one resides in a home, Schryer said relatives and other caregivers should look out for changes in behaviour.
“Fear of being alone. If they’ve been happy at the long-term care home and are suddenly afraid to be left there … those are certainly signs that something has gone amiss,” she said.
“During these days of COVID, it’s very difficult because so many folks are suffering in many ways. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean that sexual abuse is occurring, but they might even vocalize that something is wrong.”
Schryer said concerned relatives can reach out to her organization.
“If someone is thinking, ‘I don’t know, with my mom or my dad, something’s going on,’ of course we’ll talk to them,” she said.
In addition to residents, she said staff themselves can be sexually assaulted in the workplace.
Calling respect and education key, she believes there’s still a long way to go for improved prevention and to properly support these workers.
“Sometimes workers have not been respected,” she said. “Sometimes workers have been told, ‘Oh, he didn’t know what he was doing.’
“For the most part, I do feel that when things have happened, there has been an effort made to understand and deal with such problems. But the reality is, that hasn’t happened 100 per cent of the time.”
When institutions try to deal with matters internally, it often “leads to more problems than less,” said Rob Talach, a partner with Beckett Personal Injury Lawyers, who represented Deb’s family.
“Clearly for those in the family and on the receiving end, these are very troubling. It goes to the core of safety and security, which is a basic fundamental need for these residents … in addition to being fed and housed and a roof over their head.”
Talach called it fortunate that his client’s late aunt had a supportive family to advocate for her, adding that not every resident does.
He couldn’t comment on the settlement that was reached, but said, “all I can say was the action was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.”
His firm has also been dealing with similar cases in other cities.
“We’re seeing this pattern of somebody who maybe shouldn’t be in that level of home anymore,” he said. “The victims aren’t fully heard and the perpetrators’ actions are often dismissed.”
Despite Canada’s aging population, Talach believes society in general is currently at the “infantile stage of having adequate responses” to the situation.
“This is going to be a tsunami as our baby boomers start to hit the homes,” he said. “It’s just bound to happen more.”
Deb’s aunt, who later resided at Riverview Gardens, died last year. Deb said she waited to come forward to tell her story because of the ongoing pandemic.
“She was not able to speak for herself,” Deb said. “That really was my main goal.
“I certainly don’t believe for a minute that it only happens here.”
As a survivor herself, she said her aunt’s alleged sexual assault was something that affected her deeply.
“If at that point she could feel embarrassed, I have no doubt she was feeling embarrassed. She was confused,” she said.
Deb said her main concern was that she believes home administrators weren’t honest with the family about what really happened.
“We were certainly big advocates of the care that she seemed to be getting there from the staff. They were always very friendly, very accommodating,” she said.
She believes there needs to be more proactive enforcement – “not to trip them up” but to make sure policies are being adhered to, or to check if homes are slipping in a given area.
“Their job’s difficult enough. We understood too, they can’t be everywhere,” she said. “They’re overworked, understaffed, underpaid.”
Published on August 6, 2021