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June 2012
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New legislation targets abuse of elderly, vulnerable adults

BY KATHLEEN FOXkfox@paducahsun.com

Several pieces of legislation introduced during the current session target a gap in the protection of some of the most vulnerable residents of Kentucky.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services has noted more than 7,000 cases of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation since 2008, according to Marsha Hockensmith, director of Kentucky Protection and Advocacy. She said an electronic records system is unique because it would protect adults, many senior citizens, who cannot defend themselves because of physical or intellectual disabilities.

"Hopefully such a mechanism would prevent direct care staff who may have not been charged criminally but have had an allegation of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult, even resulting in employment termination from leaving one provider then going to work at another provider," she said.

She added that existing systems, including the Kentucky Nurses Aide and Child Abuse and Neglect registries, don't always highlight those with a history of abuse. An individual doesn't need to be a certified nurse to work or volunteer as a personal caregiver so those who have abused patients wouldn't appear on a registry.

"The Nurses Aide Registry only captures nurses aides and more times than not the direct care staff are not certified nurses aides so if abuse was substantiated but there wasn't a criminal conviction, it wouldn't show up anywhere," she said.

Paducah resident Sheina Murphy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived in a personal care home before moving out on her own. She now works as a self-employed consultant, a peer support instructor and leader of crisis intervention training for law enforcement. She expressed the vital importance of protecting those who often are unable to protect themselves.

"The registry is so important for adults staying in personal care homes because they are vulnerable to ill treatment," she said. "For the mentally ill population, every step must be taken to protect them."

She added that criminal charges are difficult to pursue in cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation because those with mental or physical illnesses are not thought to be credible witnesses. For employees who are fired because of  ill treatment but don't have criminal charges pressed against them, they can move on to another job in another area without repercussions.

Hockensmith said similar legislation has been filed before but failed to pass because of issues of due process. Prior to the current Kentucky legislative session, program leaders, politicians and family members of disabled individuals met to draft a more successful and detailed resolution.

She said officials are hopeful this year's legislation will pass with additional clauses that ensure the registry is constitutional and alleged abusers are given notice and an opportunity to appeal the charge through proper channels. Currently two states, Missouri and Vermont, have similar programs in place.

"With anything that is new and different, it's a challenge," she said. "But there continues to be a need to provide protection for those within the current gap," she said.

Bills 98 and 256 both focus on the creation of a universal adult protection registry that would serve to monitor cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation of adults. The Senate bill is supported by both parties and sponsored by Republican Sen. Sara Beth Gregory of Monticello and Democratic Sen. Denise Harper Angel of Louisville. The House bill is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo of Lexington.

Senate Bill 98 would require those who provide personal care services to adults to consult with the CHFS to confirm that a substantiated finding of adult abuse, neglect or exploitation hasn't been filled against the prospective employee, contractor or volunteer. House Bill 256 states that the CHFS would create and maintain an electronic adult abuse registry that would prohibit unsubstantiated findings and ensure all judicial protocols are upheld before an individual is added.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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