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Some State Laws Fail to Protect Elder Exploitation on Social Media

It was only recently that health officials in Iowa learned it was not illegal for someone to share photos of a nursing home resident covered in feces. 

This loophole in the law was only discovered when a certified nursing assistant shared one such humiliating photograph of an elderly patient on the social media platform Snapchat. They moved to take action, but realized there wasn’t much they could do. In this case, the state law crafted to protect elderly, dependent adults from exploitation and abuse was last updated eight years ago – well before some of the most popular apps existed.

While the statute does prohibit sexual exploitation of a person by a caretaker, this particular photo didn’t show any genitals, so the law was not applicable. So while the nurse was fired, neither state health officials nor the police were able to take any action. 

The CNA had reportedly taken the image of the dementia patient and then forwarded it via Snapchat to several colleagues, captioned by the words, “shit galore.” That’s according to government records.

Health officials called the situation “disgusting” and “humiliating,” but said it doesn’t meet the state standard for exploitation.

Now, as ProPublica recently reported, lawmakers in that state are working to change that.

Of course, Iowa is by no means the only place where this happens or where law enforcement and regulators are grappling with how best to respond when nursing home abuse and exploitation occurs via photos shared on social media platforms.

Recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, penned a letter to representatives of social media companies, asking what they are doing to prevent this type of abuse. Grassley has called for better systems to report abuse, particularly with the commonly-used Snapchat. Currently, the policy requires the person affected to personally file a complaint – something that is just not going to happen with a victim who suffers from a disease like Alzheimer’s or dementia.

When someone else tries to file a complaint or log a safety concern on behalf of someone else, they are greeted with an automatic massage that says the company doesn’t accept complaints from third parties. But of course, nursing home residents are highly unlikely to have a Snapchat account or even know what it is or have any ability or understanding of how to access it.

In fact, the app is used mostly by teens and young adults so those who would be the most likely to report it may have a tough time navigating the site.

Snapchat insists that while it can’t prevent physical abuse, it will close the accounts of any members believed to have engaged in abusive behavior. On Facebook and Instagram (owned by Facebook), nudity is generally prohibited and anyone can report content that is abusive.

State and local prosecutors are reportedly becoming more aggressive in going after those who abuse or sexually exploit the elderly via this method. For example, there was a case in which a teen volunteer snapped a selfie with a 108-year-old woman as she was urinating. The volunteer was arrested and charged in juvenile court with invasion of privacy.

Further, several nursing home industry trade groups have issued suggestions for how facilities might address these issues in-house.

That’s a good start, but families and loved ones must educate themselves as well. This kind of abuse is unacceptable and can cause real and lasting harm to vulnerable residents.

If your loved one has been the victim of nursing home abuse that involves Snapchat or some other social media postings, that means the facility failed in protecting them – whether by failure to supervise, negligent hiring or retention or inadequate safety protocols. We will fight to help you recover damages.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

As cases multiply, officials scramble to stop abuse of nursing home residents on social media, July 14, 2016, By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

More Blog Entries:

Nursing Home Resident Arrested for Sexual Battery of 94-Year-Old, July 17, 2016, Port St. Lucie Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer Blog

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