"Protecting the vulnerable from thieves"
SignOnSanDiego.com by the Union-Tribune
A new law will take effect Jan. 1 to streamline reports of elder abuse
By Kristina Davis
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
October 19, 2008
Debra Carson's mother never takes off her rings, especially her beloved diamond wedding band.
But on a Memorial Day weekend, when Carson visited the Oceanside nursing home where her mother was living, she noticed the 81-year-old woman's hands were bare.
“I was heartbroken because I knew what had happened,” Carson said.
The diamond ring had been stolen.
“I was kicking myself. She has Alzheimer's. Why didn't I take them off her hands?” Carson said.
Vulnerable men and women regularly fall victim to theft while in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and even their own homes – often targeted by the caretakers they trust most.
Heirloom jewelry, antiques, cash and checkbooks are most commonly swiped.
“A whole lot of theft goes on that we just can't catch because the elderly are too ill or too mentally impaired to be able to even say or know they lost something,” said Deputy District Attorney Steven Carver, who prosecutes elder-abuse cases in North County.
It's difficult to determine how serious the problem is.
No state or county agency keeps statistics on nursing home thefts, though the state does keep data on reports of misappropriation of property in nursing homes.
During the past year, 262 allegations of theft or loss of resident property were reported to the state Department of Public Health. The agency licenses more than 1,100 nursing home facilities statewide.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood said few nursing homes report crimes to police in the traditional manner.
“There's a tendency to do their own internal reviews because of fear that if it leaks out, it's bad for business,” said Greenwood, head of the county's Elder Abuse Unit and one of the nation's leading experts on the issue.
A new state law going into effect Jan. 1 will require police and local ombudsmen for the elderly to immediately report cases of known or suspected elder abuse – including theft – to the District Attorney's Office.
Nursing home administrators say that incidents of theft are few and far between, with most lost items turning up less than 24 hours later.
“Misplacement is the first thing that comes to mind. And 95 percent of the time, the item is misplaced,” said Renato Alesiani, executive director of Aegis at Shadowridge nursing home where the wedding ring was stolen.
“It's what's missing that raises a red flag.”
In Carson's case, the thief picked the wrong prey.
Not only was Carson watching her mother closely, she worked to get the ring back.
Carson distributed fliers to local pawnshops and offered a $500 reward. Days later, police got a call from Oceanside's Gems N' Loan on Mission Avenue and recovered the heirloom.
With the help of store surveillance video, detectives arrested Renee Ena, a caretaker at Aegis of Shadowridge who often bathed Carson's mother. Police also found a methamphetamine pipe in Ena's pocket, Carver said.
Ena, 33, of Oceanside, pleaded guilty in Vista Superior Court to stealing from Carson's mother and from another woman in the facility, and is scheduled to be sentenced next month.
“The family members have to be very, very proactive on this stuff,” Carson said. “You have to take the reins and take the valuable stuff away and replace it with other stuff they'll be happy with. Even good people can be tempted by an easy target.”
Alesiani at Aegis said Ena's background and reference checks came up clean, and she had no prior offenses on her record.
“She fooled a lot of people,” Alesiani said.
Drug tests are not required. Alesiani said such tests are too expensive to perform on everyone and are used only if an employee begins to exhibit unusual behavior.
Typical pre-employment drug screening can cost between $50 to $75 per person, and up to $150 to test hair samples.
Prosecutors say it's important for family members to do their homework on facilities and home health care agencies and ask about how employees are screened.
A state-run database of health care workers is updated if an employee is arrested while either on or off the job, and the employee could be blacklisted from working in health care facilities depending on the crime.
Hiring independent home health care workers can be especially risky.
“Unfortunately, it's not illegal for a felon to get a job caring for elders,” Carver said.
A stolen-checks case Carver is prosecuting involves an older woman and her daughter who used a newspaper ad to hire a caretaker.
“They checked all her references and hired her. They thought they were being diligent,” Carver said. “Turns out she had two prior elder-theft convictions and had gone to prison for both.”
A nurse's aid at a Lakeside nursing home recently pleaded guilty to stealing several checks from at least three residents, draining about $24,000 from their accounts, Greenwood said.
Niegel Laxamana, 27, faces up to two years in prison.
Even Greenwood's wife's uncle was a victim of theft recently at a Pennsylvania nursing home.
“He was sleeping one night and the nurse came in and stole a checkbook and drained the account,” Greenwood said. “I believe it goes on all over the country.“