No one with a loved one who needs around-the-clock care wants to think about the possibility that their beloved family member might be neglected or abused in a care facility. Making the decision to move a loved one into a nursing home is often difficult and emotional enough; it’s hard to contemplate how it might go very wrong. But it is a stark reality. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 15,600 nursing homes in the U.S. with 1.7 million licensed beds and 1.4 million residents.  As reported by the National Center on Elder Abuse, in 2014 there were approximately 188,599 complaints made to the National Ombudsman Reporting System (NORS) involving elder abuse, gross neglect, or exploitation of elders in nursing homes and long term care facilities.  In 2001, a report by the U.S. House of Representatives found that nearly 1 in 3 nursing homes were cited for violations of federal standards and nearly 1 in 10 had violations that caused residents harm, serious injury, or placed them in jeopardy of death. 
These nursing home abuse facts should be chilling to all of us and may even be shocking. They aren’t news to Sherri L. Warfel, Chair of the firm’s Nursing Home Practice, “We have a large population of baby boomers who are aging and living longer,” Ms. Warfel begins, “Many are not able to move in with their children as may have been the norm a few decades ago, and therefore they are entering nursing home and long term care facilities in unprecedented numbers. Most of these facilities are for-profit entities. And when you have companies chasing profits, you are going to see breakdowns in care. At the same time, we have significant growth in the number of facilities and thus a shortage of skilled nursing care.”
Providing quality care for a diverse group of residents each with individual needs is no doubt challenging. But it is an obligation and one that many facilities discharge well. But not all of them and not all the time. “Regrettably,” Ms. Warfel reports, “I see cases all the time from the same facilities. It’s frustrating, but all we can do is pursue justice for the victims.” Yes, New Jersey nursing home neglect and abuse happens right here every day.
How can families who are considering placing a loved one in a care facility choose wisely? There are resources available to help you. Ms. Warfel advises:
- Consult the loved one’s social worker or medical team for recommendations.
- Ask other families who have placed their loved ones what their experience has been like with that facility.
- Research the facility. Nursing homes and long term care facilities are regulated at the state and federal level. There are annual surveys and reported violations information available on the Internet. Start at the NJ Department of Health web site (http://web.doh.state.nj.us/apps2/healthfacilities/fsSearch.aspx). You can search for facilities and view each facility’s licensing information, inspection summaries, and nursing home report card. Go to medicare.gov (https://www.medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare/) to use their Nursing Home Compare tool to view facilities’ ratings for health inspections, staffing, and quality measures.
- Visit the facility. Use all your senses — how does it look, smell, feel? How are you treated by staff? Do residents appear at ease, well-groomed, and cared for? Is it clean and well kept? How does the food look and smell? Are their opportunities for resident involvement in their daily life and meaningful activities for them? How do staff treat residents? But remember that just because a place looks beautiful, does not mean it functions well. Do your research and ask for recommendations and referrals. Ask questions about patient care, inspection results, and past violations.
- Read the contract. Does the facility have a mandatory arbitration clause that limits your ability to sue? Learn more in this article about mandatory arbitration clauses.
If, despite your efforts, something happens and you become concerned that your loved one might be a victim of New Jersey nursing home abuse, do not hesitate to take action. “First,” says Ms. Warfel, “Don’t blame yourself. You can do everything right, pick a place with good ratings and reputation, and still things can happen. You know your loved one. If you see a problem, if they aren’t themselves, if they are complaining of a problem, do not appear well cared-for, or they have an unexplained fall or injury — speak up and ask an attorney.”
A skilled attorney will not charge you anything for an initial call to hear your concern. The attorney can advise whether or not there is something that you might be able to pursue legally. For example, in Ms. Warfel’s practice, she or her experienced paralegal will take your call and hear your story. They may advise that you come into the office to talk further so a determination can be made about whether there is a case to pursue. There is no obligation or cost for these initial consultations and you get a skilled evaluation of a situation from someone who sees these problems all the time. “We take the time to hear your individual concerns and understand the situation,” says Ms. Warfel. “Most of the time, the family doesn’t have any medical expertise. They may get a vague explanation for a fall or never see a pressure ulcer because they are asked to leave when the patient is being changed. These things bear investigation. We can advise you whether what has happened is outside the standard. Your loved one has a right to live in dignity. Listen to that voice inside you. If you have any doubt, call an attorney.”