Florida seniors and disabled adults too frail to live on their own have been beaten, neglected and robbed by caregivers with criminal records.
A cancer patient at a Pompano Beach assisted-living facility watched helplessly from her bed as a nurse's aide with a record for theft rifled through her handbag and stole $165.
"What are you doing with my bag?" a police report quoted her as saying. "You have no right. Put it down."
A video camera caught an aide at a North Miami Beach group home for the disabled shoving a cerebral palsy patient face-first to the floor, busting her lip. The aide had previously pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and never should have been working there.
More than 3,500 people with criminal records — including offenses such as rape, robbery and murder — have been allowed to work with the elderly, disabled and infirm through exemptions granted by the state during the past two decades, a ( Fort Lauderdale) Sun Sentinel investigation found. Hundreds more slipped through because employers failed to check their backgrounds or kept them on the job despite their criminal pasts.
When officials from the Agency for Health Care Administration interviewed the administrator, she said "no one ever told her" that Nichols wasn't allowed to work there or that she needed to apply for an exemption. The administrator was given 10 days to submit an "action plan" for dealing with the problem.
Nichols is no longer employed by the home.
In Palm Beach County, a woman with pending forgery charges got a job at a nursing home, where she assaulted a patient.
Glades Health Care Center in Pahokee did a background check on Phillina Anderson in 2004, but it did not turn up the charges, said Francine Hennessy, chief operating officer of the Council on Aging of Florida Inc., which owns the facility. If it had, the nursing home would not have hired her, Hennessy said.
Anderson was still on probation in that case when she was arrested for abusing patient Cora Edwards.
Near the end of her shift on July 13, 2007, Anderson became upset with Edwards, a stroke victim with Alzheimer's, according to an arrest report.
Anderson told Edwards to "shut up" and slapped her "extremely hard" across the face.
"Why did you hit me?" the elderly victim cried out, according to the report. "I never did anything to you."
Anderson was convicted of abuse on an elderly person and served three months in jail. Hennessy said the nursing home learned after her arrest that she had been accused of abusing a resident at another facility that did not report it.
"We were very surprised," she said. "Her background check was clear."
ProtectionsFlorida has a patchwork of controls for checking out those who work with the elderly that seems to put more emphasis on protecting against embezzlement than safeguarding patients.
Inconsistencies in state law are glaring — facility owners, administrators and those who handle money require a nationwide FBI check, but not the employees caring for patients. With some exceptions, they are checked only for crimes in Florida.
For nursing homes, a background check must be complete before anyone is allowed to work. But for assisted-living facilities, home-health aides and companions, employees can begin work before screening results come back.
"All employees should have a background check before they start working, and it needs to be a Level II background check, which means you get fingerprinted and it goes through the FBI," said Randy Hunt, president and CEO of the Senior Resource Alliance, an information and referral agency serving Central Florida.
"It should be a nationwide and statewide test. And anybody who is convicted of a felony — especially if it involves abuse, exploitation, fraud, neglect — should not be permitted to work there. And even if you could employ those people — my God, why would you want to?"
Holly Benson, head of the Florida agency that regulates health-care facilities, said the discrepancies are a result of different laws passed over more than a decade. "A lot of the way that this policy evolved is just kind of hit or miss," said Benson, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.
Of more than 100,000 people screened through the agency during the past 36 1/2 years, more than 3,420, or 3 percent, were rejected because of a criminal history for offenses that included murder, exploiting the elderly and elder neglect, a Sun Sentinel analysis shows. The jobs include positions at clinics and treatment centers as well as at nursing homes and agencies caring for the elderly.
Under Florida law, certain crimes disqualify someone from working with seniors. Until this year, those offenses did not include financial crimes that can lead to elder abuse and exploitation.
An expanded list takes effect Thursday — eight years after a committee of prosecutors and state regulators recommended adding crimes such as burglary, fraud and forgery.
The new restrictions could have kept Maria Blanco from working as a home health aide in the St. Petersburg area after nearly a dozen charges of theft and fraud over 10 years. Instead, the Agency for Health Care Administration cleared her to work in January 2007.
Two months later, she stole $4,850 from an 86-year-old man in her care, according to a Tampa police report.
"Maria was an exceptional caregiver," said Jodi Earle, an owner of the Granny Nannies home-health franchise that hired Blanco. "She had taken care of a couple of other clients with absolutely no complaints. I have no idea why she did it."
Blanco could not be reached for comment. She pleaded guilty to grand theft and received probation.
After the arrest, Granny Nannies changed its hiring procedures. Under Florida law, home-health agencies must run a statewide criminal check on employees but can hire them before results come back.
Earle's agency now completes background checks first, and also does a nationwide record search.
"I think it should be a requirement," she said. "We learned the hard way. ... It can take four to five weeks, but it's worth it."
More scrutinyAnother state agency is charged with protecting people with mental and physical disabilities who live in group homes. That safety net is also flawed, the Sun Sentinel found.
The Department of Children and Families screens caretakers of the disabled through the FBI but leaves it to employers to interpret the results of Florida criminal-record checks.
Tierra Henry got a job in 2004 at a North Miami Beach group home operated by United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida.
Henry had served a year of probation for a 2001 charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Henry, then 19, hit a 15-year-old girl in the head with nunchuks, a martial-arts weapon, a Miami-Dade police report said.
"I told them straight up before they even hired me," Henry said in an interview. "I told them I had a fight with a girl from high school. ... They gave me the job, no problem."
United Cerebral Palsy thought Henry was clear after receiving a letter from DCF showing no record on her FBI check, said Leigh Kapps, an executive director. But Kapps' agency should have checked her background in Florida and disqualified her based on the aggravated-assault offense, a DCF spokeswoman said.
A year later, a video camera at the group home recorded Henry approaching a 22-year-old resident with cerebral palsy, grabbing her arm from behind and pushing her to the floor. Henry pleaded guilty to aggravated abuse of a disabled adult and is serving four years' probation.
Weed out criminalsPatients and their families have no way of checking employees' criminal histories. Personnel files are confidential, as they are for any private business.
The Agency for Health Care Administration relies on employers to check the backgrounds of employees working with the elderly. State inspectors are supposed to ensure screening requirements are met but inspect nursing homes on average only once a year and assisted-living facilities every other year.
Inspection data shows the system fails to weed out employees with ineligible records and is slow to remove them once hired.
Screening problems are among the four most common violations in assisted-living facilities, adult day cares and nursing agencies. Home-health agencies and nursing homes are also cited, but less frequently.
At nursing homes, where a completed background check is required before starting, some employees had worked as long as seven years without any check.
Joan Loughman never thought about the pasts of the staff at the Lyford Cove assisted-living facility in Fort Pierce when she admitted her ailing father in 2002, said her husband, Tom.
Loughman selected the facility after meeting its marketing director, Andrew Gosciminski, at the hospital treating her father. Gosciminski helped her move her father's belongings and admired her 2-carat diamond ring and other jewelry worth $40,000, records show.
Set off alarm"That for me set off an alarm," said Tom Loughman, who remained in the couple's Danbury, Conn., home. "I called her and said that conversation really bothered me. I told her, 'You have to be careful.'"
On Sept. 24, 2002, the day before she was scheduled to fly home, Loughman, a grandmother and Girl Scout volunteer, was found dead in her father's Hutchinson Island home, her throat cut and her jewelry missing. That night, Gosciminski gave his girlfriend a diamond ring, according to court testimony.
Gosciminski was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict last fall based on insufficient physical evidence. Jury selection in his retrial began last week.
Gosciminski, who had felony-theft and worthless-check convictions in Broward County, did not even need a background check to work at Lyford Cove. He fell into a category of employees not required to undergo screening — administrators who do not provide "personal services" to residents.
"They claimed they were given the OK by the state to hire him because he wasn't actually doing hands-on care of residents," said Bennie Lazzara Jr., a Tampa attorney who represented Loughman's family in a lawsuit against the facility.
Lyford Cove settled the lawsuit for undisclosed terms and is under different ownership.
Tom Loughman, an accountant, said family members assume employees caring for their loved ones have been thoroughly checked out.
"When you're under the gun of trying to find a place for your relative and they're in the hospital and they're dying, it's the last thing on your mind as to whether it's a safe facility," he said. "You assume with the state regulating them, that's a given."
Kate Santich of the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.
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