December was a busy month in the New York State Attorney General’s office when it came to prosecuting New York nursing home abusers, with two arrests made and announced. The Attorney General has both criminal and civil powers to enforce the laws of New York; this post will look at how he has exercised those criminal powers in the fight against elder abuse.
On December 10, the Attorney General announced the arrest of Maria Fernandez, a licensed practical nurse employed at the Victoria Lake Nursing Center in Hyde Park, Long Island. Ms. Fernandez was caught on camera slapping an 83 year-old resident of the facility who suffered from dementia and was entirely dependent on others for her care and survival. On December 17, AG Schneiderman also publicized the arrest of a certified nurse aide at the Huntington Hills Center for Health and Rehabilitation, another Long Island nursing home, for improperly and illegally moving a disabled 92 year-old patient from a wheelchair to a bed without the assistance of another staff member, against the patient’s “plan of care,” resulting in a leg wound. The nurse aide is then alleged to have tampered with paperwork to cover up her breach of care.
In these cases, the key takeaway is that what may seem like “small” violations in the grand scope of criminal law – a slap, a breach of patient care – can carry grave legal consequences when the victim is a nursing home resident entirely dependent on others for their care. That slap has the potential to send Ms. Fernandez to prison for four years. The breach of care in the Huntington Hills facility led to charges (including the cover-up) could also lead to a four-year prison term for the nurse aide. Both of these sentences are potentially longer than they would have been if the victim was not so vulnerable. These are, plainly put, extremely serious crimes.
AG Schneiderman has been excellent on this issue, which has emerged as a top priority in his office. In June, he announced the arrests of nine nursing home employees in Suffolk County after a 72 year-old resident of the Medford Multicare Center for Living was entirely ignored by staff as her vital signs slowly failed in bed. The woman later died. To criminally charge nine employees of a single nursing home is absolutely stunning – it shows a resoluteness, and a distinct ability to understand the uniquely horrific nature of crimes against what is, in the end, one of the most vulnerable populations in our state. And again, note that these employees did not actually beat, torture, or directly injure the victim. Her death was the result of ignorance, of the failure to perform by those who had a legal duty to do so. In this context, such a failure to perform is a very, very serious crime.
It’s important to note that these arrests are not the only way the state of New York is fighting elder abuse by health care workers. Arguably, the civil lawsuits filed by AG Schneiderman’s office are more powerful methods to effect change, as they do more than punish so-called “bad employees” and target entire nursing homes and corporate owners, who hold primary responsibility for the cultures their facilities adopt. We’ll keep you up to date on these lawsuits in future posts, and please remember that if you suspect your loved one to be victim of nursing home abuse, you can contact our office for a consultation, or make a complaint of suspect abuse directly to the New York Department of Health.