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Sun Sentinel

Convicted felons could be working in your mother or father's nursing home

By Sally Kestin, Peter Franceschina and John Maines South Florida Sun Sentinel

11:09 p.m. EDT, September 27, 2009

Florida seniors and disabled adults too frail to live on their own have been beaten, neglected and robbed by caregivers with criminal records.

A cancer patient at a Pompano Beach assisted living facility watched helplessly from bed as a nurse's aide with a record for theft rifled through her handbag and stole $165.

"What are you doing with my bag?" a police report quoted her as saying. "You have no right. Put it down."

A video camera caught an aide at a North Miami Beach group home for the disabled shoving a cerebral palsy patient face-first to the floor, busting her lip. The aide had previously pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and never should have been working there.

More than 3,500 people with criminal records — including rape, robbery and murder — have been allowed to work with the elderly, disabled and infirm through exemptions granted by the state the past two decades, a Sun Sentinel investigation found. Hundreds more slipped through because employers failed to check their backgrounds or kept them on the job despite their criminal past.

In Palm Beach County, a woman with pending forgery charges got a job at a nursing home, where she assaulted a patient.

Glades Health Care Center in Pahokee did a background check on Phillina Anderson in 2004, but it did not turn up the charges, said Francine Hennessy, chief operating officer of the Council on Aging of Florida, Inc., which owns the facility. If it had, the nursing home would not have hired her, Hennessy said.

Anderson was still on probation in that case when she was arrested for abusing patient Cora Edwards.

Near the end of her shift on July 13, 2007, Anderson became upset with Edwards, a stroke victim with Alzheimer's disease, according to an arrest report.

Anderson told Edwards to "shut up" and slapped her "extremely hard" across the face.

"Why did you hit me?" the elderly victim cried out, according to the report. "I never did anything to you."

Anderson was convicted of abuse on an elderly person and served three months in jail. Hennessy said the nursing home learned after her arrest that she had been accused of abusing a resident at another facility that did not report it.

"We were very surprised," she said. "Her background check was clear."

Screening gaps

Florida has a patchwork of controls for checking caregivers of the elderly that seems to put more emphasis on protecting against embezzlement than safeguarding patients.

Inconsistencies in state law are glaring — facility owners, administrators and people who handle money require a nationwide FBI check, but not employees caring for patients. With some exceptions, they are checked only for crimes in Florida.

For nursing homes, a background check must be complete before anyone can work. But for assisted living facilities and home health aides and companions, employees can begin work before screening results come back.

"It ought to be consistent," said Bob Blancato of the Elder Justice Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that supports nationwide background checks for all employees.

Holly Benson, head of the Florida agency that regulates health care facilities, said the discrepancies are a result of different laws passed over more than a decade. "A lot of the way that this policy evolved is just kind of hit or miss,'' said Benson, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Of more than 100,000 people screened through AHCA over the past 3 1/2 years, more than 3,420, or 3 percent, were rejected because of a criminal history for offenses that included murder, exploiting the elderly and elder neglect, a Sun Sentinel analysis shows. The jobs include positions at clinics and treatment centers as well as nursing homes and agencies caring for the elderly.

Under Florida law, certain crimes disqualify someone from working with seniors or the disabled unless they obtain an exemption by showing evidence of rehabilitation.

Until this year, the disqualifying offenses did not include financial crimes that can lead to abuse and exploitation. An expanded list takes effect Thursday — eight years after a committee of prosecutors and state regulators recommended adding crimes such as burglary, fraud and forgery.

The patchwork screening system puts Florida's most vulnerable adults at risk, the Sun Sentinel found.

Latoera O'Neal was able to care for seniors for two years in the Panhandle because she was screened only for offenses she might have committed in Florida.

In Ohio, O'Neal was an admitted cocaine dealer and served time in prison for a drug offense. Her out-of-state record only came to light when she switched jobs to work with the disabled.

Florida's Department of Children & Families conducts nationwide criminal background checks of employees who work with the mentally and physically disabled. DCF first found O'Neal was disqualified as a caregiver, but gave her an exemption to work in 2004 after she said she had found God and being a caregiver brought joy to her heart.

While working at a group home in Fort Walton Beach in 2007, O'Neal dragged a mentally disabled man out of a van by his feet, slamming his head on the floorboard and the pavement, an arrest report said. She now faces a charge of abusing a disabled person.

Tierra Henry got a job in 2004 at a North Miami Beach group home operated by United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida.

Henry had served a year of probation for a 2001 charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Henry, then 19, hit a 15-year-old girl in the head with nunchuks, a martial arts weapon, a Miami-Dade Police report said.

"I told them straight up before they even hired me," Henry said in an interview. "I told them I had a fight with a girl from high school ... They gave me the job, no problem."

DCF reviews the results of national FBI checks on caregivers of the disabled, while criminal history searches in Florida go directly to employers, who may miss disqualifying charges or fail to remove people as required.

United Cerebral Palsy thought Henry was clear after receiving a letter from DCF showing no record on her FBI check, said Leigh Kapps, an executive director. But Kapps' agency should have checked her background in Florida and disqualified her based on the aggravated assault offense, a DCF spokeswoman said.

A year later, a video camera at the group home recorded Henry approaching a 22-year-old resident with cerebral palsy, grabbing her arm from behind and pushing her to the floor. Henry pleaded guilty to aggravated abuse of a disabled adult and is serving four years' probation.

Rules ignored

Patients and their families have no way of checking employees' criminal histories. Personnel files are confidential, as they are for any private business.

The Agency for Health Care Administration relies on employers to check the backgrounds of employees working with the elderly. State inspectors are supposed to ensure screening requirements are met but inspect nursing homes on average only once a year and assisted living facilities every other year.

Inspection data shows the system fails to weed out employees with disqualifying records and is slow to remove them once hired.

Screening problems are among the four most common violations in assisted living facilities, adult day cares and nursing agencies. Home health agencies and nursing homes are also cited, but less frequently.

At nursing homes, where a completed background check is required before starting, some employees had worked as long as seven years without any check.

A nurse in West Palm Beach was on the job despite several "misdemeanors and felonies" in the personnel file, and another worked more than a year without undergoing screening "due to lack of facility funds to pay for the background check," a state inspector reported in April 2008. A background check costs about $25.

Supervisors at a Sunrise nursing home knew about a housekeeper's record for cocaine trafficking and possession but kept him on because they felt he "deserved a break," a June 2008 inspection found.

"The teeth aren't long enough or sharp enough," said Don Hering, head of Florida's Long-term Care Ombudsman Council, which investigates elder facilities. "People who know how to game the system, they fine them, they give them 30 days to clean up their act, then it's back to business as usual."

‘Last thing on your mind'

Tom Laughman holds a photo of his wife, Joan. (Chris Ware, The News-Times)Joan Loughman never thought about the pasts of the staff at the Lyford Cove assisted living facility in Fort Pierce when she admitted her ailing father in 2002, said her husband, Tom.

Loughman selected the facility after meeting its marketing director, Andrew Gosciminski, at the hospital treating her father. Gosciminski helped her move her father's belongings and admired her 2-carat diamond ring and other jewelry worth $40,000, records show.

"That for me set off an alarm," said Tom Loughman, who remained in the couple's Danbury, Conn., home. "I called her and said that conversation really bothered me. I told her, ‘You have to be careful.'-"

On Sept. 24, 2002, the day before she was scheduled to fly home, Loughman, a grandmother and Girl Scout volunteer, was found dead in her father's Hutchinson Island home, her throat cut and her jewelry missing. That night, Gosciminski gave his girlfriend a diamond ring, according to court testimony.

Gosciminski was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the Florida Supreme Court overturned the verdict last fall based on insufficient physical evidence. Jury selection in his retrial began last week.
Andrew GosciminskiGosciminski, who had felony theft and worthless check convictions in Broward County, did not even need a background check to work at Lyford Cove. He fell into a category of employees not required to undergo screening — administrators who do not provide "personal services" to residents.

"They claimed they were given the OK by the state to hire him because he wasn't actually doing hands-on care of residents," said Bennie Lazzara Jr., a Tampa attorney who represented Loughman's family in a lawsuit against the facility.

Lyford Cove settled the lawsuit for undisclosed terms and is under different ownership.

Tom Loughman, an accountant, said family members assume employees caring for their loved ones have been thoroughly checked out.

"When you're under the gun of trying to find a place for your relative and they're in the hospital and they're dying, it's the last thing on your mind as to whether it's a safe facility," he said. "You assume with the state regulating them, that's a given."

Sally Kestin can be reached at skestin@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4510.

Peter Franceschina can be reached at pfranceschina@SunSentinel.com or 954-459-2255.