As a nursing home (and assisted living facility) abuse lawyer in Alaska, I have experienced cases of extreme abuse and neglect in homes that are beautiful on the surface, but which are poorly run leaving residents at risk of harm from staff, other residents, and environmental factors. Certainly, as Baby Boomers begin to retire in huge numbers, more and more people will be looking for housing and care alternatives for their loved ones as they age. This inevitably will lead to more problems as some nursing homes and assisted living facilities consistently value profits over people. If you are in the position of deciding whether to put a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility, in Alaska, it might be a good idea to review lawsuits against whatever facility you are considering. Alaska maintains a public index of all lawsuits on a website called Courtview. You might also consult with an attorney who has a caseload involving guardianships and other elder law matters, as they would tend to be very involved in helping clients and their families with finding placement in safe facilities. Such attorneys would have keen insight into the local community and what facilities have good reputations, and conversely which ones do not.
What Is Nursing Home (or Assisted Living Facility) Abuse or Neglect In Alaska?
When a nursing home or assisted living facility takes in a new resident, they are making a promise to that resident and their loved ones to do everything possible to keep them safe and healthy in their new home. Any of us who have been in that situation want to believe whatever facility we choose puts safety first; unfortunately, that is not always the situation and the size of the facility says nothing directly about its safety record. The state of Alaska keeps records for all complaints and investigations of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, so it pays to do your homework before placing your loved one in the care of another.
Nursing home abuse can come at the hands of staff, co-residents, administration officials, or anyone else who happens to frequent the facility. Nursing home neglect can take the form of poor medication management, failures to prevent common hazards like falling or wandering, and too often medical care is not made a priority because of the hassle and extra expense that meticulous care generates. The reality is that most nursing homes and assisted living facilities truly care about their residents and do a good job; however, the bad ones do a very bad job and even good ones can become complacent and careless with their vulnerable residents. Such complacency and carelessness can lead to serious injuries to – or death – of these vulnerable adults who pay these facilities to keep them safe.
In Alaska, “neglect” of a vulnerable adult is defined in Alaska statute 47.24.900(12) as “the intentional, knowing, or reckless failure by a caregiver to provide essential care or services or access to essential care or services or to carry out a prescribed treatment plan necessary to maintain the physical and mental health of the vulnerable adult when the vulnerable adult is unable to provide or obtain the essential care or services or to carry out the prescribed treatment plan on the vulnerable adults own behalf.” Further, “the essential care or services” is defined to include food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and supervision. Thus, the duty to care for a vulnerable adult in a nursing home or assisted living facility is quite broad. “Abuse” of a vulnerable adult is defined as “the intentional, knowing, or reckless nonaccidental and non-therapeutic infliction of physical pain, injury, mental or emotional distress, or fear, including coercion and intimidation.”
Who Has a Legal Duty to Report Abuse or Neglect in Alaska?
In Alaska, the law requires the following persons or entities to report suspected abuse or neglect of vulnerable adults: a physician or other licensed health care provider; a mental health professional; a marital and family therapist; a pharmacist; any administrator or employee of a nursing home, residential care, or other health care facility; a guardian or conservator; a police officer; a village public safety officer; a village health aide; a social worker; a member of the clergy; any employees of the Department of Health and social services; any employee of a personal care or home health aide program; an emergency medical technician or paramedic; any caregiver (or PCA) of the vulnerable adult; a certified nursing aide (CNA); and, an educator or administrative staff member of a public or private educational institution. Finally, Alaska law defines “vulnerable adult” as a person 18 years of age or older who “because of incapacity, mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, advanced age…is unable to meet the person's own needs or to seek help without assistance.”
Is It a Crime to Abuse a Vulnerable Adult in Alaska?
Yes. It is a crime to endanger the welfare of a vulnerable adult by failing – without lawful excuse – to provide support for the vulnerable adult when the offender has that adult in their care by contract or authority of law, or that adult lives in their facility or attends their program if either is required by law to be licensed by the state of Alaska. Under this criminal statute, “support” includes necessary food, care, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. It is a separate crime for anyone who is a mandatory reporter who under the circumstances should have had reasonable cause to believe a vulnerable adult suffers from undue influence, abandonment, exploitation, abuse, neglect, or self-neglect but knowingly fails to report it to proper authorities.
Can I Get in Trouble If I Make a Report of Abuse or Neglect in Alaska?
According to the Alaska Supreme Court in 2013, if a report of abuse of a vulnerable adult is filed by a mandatory reporter based on a good faith belief that the vulnerable adult may have suffered harm, the reporter will be shielded from liability by qualified official immunity even if the reported belief is ultimately unsubstantiated. While immediate family members are not mandatory reporters by law in Alaska, it would seem the same public policy behind this qualified immunity would apply to reports made by family members of suspected abuse or neglect. It is similar to the immunity provided by law to a “Good Samaritan” who tries to help somebody but negligently causes more harm in the attempt to render aid. However, be aware that a knowingly false report of harm done with a malicious or corrupt purpose could cause the mandatory reporter to lose the cloak of immunity provided by law; that is why it is called “qualified” immunity rather than “absolute” immunity.
Moreover, Alaska statute 47.24.010 states that a person who recklessly makes a false report of harm against a vulnerable adult is liable for civil money damages suffered by the person who is the subject of the report. If the reporter learns the information about abuse or neglect during the course and scope of employment working with a vulnerable adult and makes a report of harm in good faith, they may not be discharged, demoted, transferred, or have their pay or benefits reduced, or get a negative work performance evaluation, or suffer any other detrimental action against them because of the report. (Alaska statute 47.24.120.)
Will Hiring a Lawyer Help Me if Making a Report of Abuse or Neglect?
Yes. A consultation with a skilled civil attorney might save you a lot of time, energy, and wasted money. The attorney may advise you not to file a report, or that filing a lawsuit is warranted. Keep in mind that a personal injury lawyer is your legal advocate and must give you sound advice rather than act as your cheerleader trying to make you feel better. Some lawyers will tell you whatever they think you want to hear to get you to hire them, which is both unprofessional and unethical. If you have any further questions about this topic, feel free to call my office in at 907.262.9164 or send me an email personally at [email protected]