Most residents of nursing homes, being over the age of 65, grew up in an era without computers, let alone cell phones or social media. Yet many are fast finding themselves confronted with the ugly underbelly of these technologies, as those entrusted with their care abuse their trust, snapping and posting inappropriate, embarrassing or abusive pictures of elderly patients.
This can be sexual exploitation by a caretaker, particularly if the patient’s private parts are displayed – even if the images themselves aren’t necessarily intended to be of a sexual nature. Many of the images, as reported by NPR and ProPublica investigations, are by workers who may intend to “blow off steam” from being stressed and overworked. Nonetheless, it violates the patient’s rights, and may be actionable in civil court, particularly if there is evidence the nursing home may have been informed of it and failed to take action. ProPublica identified at least three dozen cases of this happening last year, the majority of those occurring on Snapchat.
Yet another incident was reported recently, this time in Illinois. According to local news source The Pantagraph, reports two certified nursing assistants (CNAs) who were a couple snapped and shared numerous residents in photos that were both unauthorized and “inappropriate.” The images included shots of elderly individuals who were dressing, bathing, toileting and resting in bed. All of these images, according to a recent nursing home lawsuit filed, were of the residents in situations that were embarrassing or humiliating.
Criminal charges are pending against the two suspects, a 29-year-old female and a 47-year-old male. Both have already been accused of non-consensual dissemination of sexual images. Local sheriff’s officials combed through some 55,000 pages of documents, which included records from social media and internet providers.
The nursing home itself was investigated by the state health department, which ultimately cited the facility for failure to protect residents and failure to report the incident to the proper authorities once the acts became known. The facility was fined $25,000.
A spokesperson for the facility denies there was any wrongdoing, saying as soon as administrators became aware of the images, the two employees were fired and the department of health, the sheriff’s office and resident’s families were notified.
The lawsuit alleges the female employee admitted to criminal investigators and to administrators at the nursing home that numerous images of residents had been publicly posted to her social media page and to others. She reportedly conceded she and her boyfriend had been sharing such images for the better part of a year before it was reported to authorities. She also passed along photos her boyfriend sent her of residents to certain friends.
Plaintiff in that case is seeking $50,000 in damages on behalf of the estate of one of those residents, who is now deceased.
As far as other forms of accountability, it seems many government agencies aren’t eager to take action. For example, the Office for Civil Rights (within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) could take action under medical privacy laws (more commonly known as HIPPA). However, as of last year, officials had yet to pursue any such cases for violation of nursing home rights due to social media posts. Guidelines were reportedly underway.
The American Health Care Association (AHCA), an industry group, has already released guidelines for nursing homes to follow to prevent and deal with such incidents. Those include setting clear social media guidelines for workers and promptly investigating reported abuses.
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Social Media Abuse Of Nursing Home Residents Often Goes Unchecked, July 14, 2016, By Charles Ornstein, NPR
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