Nursing homes, we like to think, are places where older folks get loving care in their twilight years. But there’s a growing fear that many nursing homes have been harboring staff with criminal pasts and that nursing home abuse is on the rise.

Every year, New York’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit receives close to 1,000 reports of suspected nursing home abuse or neglect. In one horrific recent incident, an aide for the Greater Harlem Nursing Home was charged with scalding a 90-year-old resident. The female victim, who has dementia, suffered second-degree burns and had skin torn from one leg as a result of the abuse.

New York isn’t the only state with horror stories. As the Wall Street Journal reports, in one San Antonio nursing home investigators discovered that half of the 69 male workers had arrest records, and nearly one-quarter had felony convictions. Over a two-year period ending in 1996, a Colorado court found, the Cedars Health Care Center hired 74 aides with rap sheets. The problem is national in scope: in 1997, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services logged a 14 percent increase in nursing home abuse since 1994.

Thirty-six states have sensibly passed laws requiring background checks for caregivers at hospitals and nursing homes and tougher punishment for crimes against the elderly. New York isn’t one of the 36 yet, though that may soon change. Attorney General Dennis Vacco’s proposed "Kathy’s Law",named after a comatose Rochester nursing-home resident rapedand impregnated by a nurses’ aide would strengthen penalties against those convicted of harming nursing-home residents, and, more important, require new nurses’ aides and home health care workers to submit to a background check using the state’s criminal database. At present, nursing homes are not allowed access to the database, so even if they wanted to do background checks, they couldn’t. Vacco’s law would obviously change that.Given mounting evidence that nursing homes can be anything but safe harbors for the old and weary, the Legislature should pass Kathy’s Law.


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