Many pushing for laws to protect elderly from sexual predators

Sandy Banning has been waiting six years for Florida lawmakers to start protecting frail elders in nursing homes from known sexual predators.

The state Legislature considered legislation this past spring to require criminal background checks of all prospective nursing-home residents, and to deny admission to anybody with a history of sexual offenses or other violent crimes.

She will push again for the bill next year and Wednesday she is in Washington, D.C., testifying before the House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight. The committee is examining the problem of sexual predators and offenders living side-by-side with elders and people with dementia in nursing homes.

“I’m mad. I’m mad because nothing has been done,” Banning, of Jacksonville, said.

Banning’s 77-year-old mother, Virginia Thurston, was a resident in a Jacksonville nursing home in 2002 when a sexual offender who had been arrested 58 times was placed in the home by a district court judge. A judge placed an 83-year-old man, Ivy Edwards, a repeat sex offender, in the nursing home. Edwards was believed to be wheel-chair bound.

The evening of July 23, 2002, he wheeled into Thurston’s unlocked room and used his cane to prevent anybody from being able to come in the room.

By a fluke, a nurse and a trainee were making rounds, found the locked door and entered from the next room that shared a bathroom with Thurston’s room. They discovered the man in her bed.

Banning initially was told nothing seemed to have happened. The next day, a social worker said her mother, who suffered from dementia, had been sexually assaulted. Edwards was arrested for the 59th time.

“She didn’t remember,” Banning said, who had to tell her mother what happened. “I had to take her to be examined and watch her cry.”

Nobody in the nursing home knew of the man’s history because his sexual crimes had occurred before sexual predator registration laws.

But without mandatory background checks before anyone is admitted to a nursing home in Florida, nobody knows how many sexual predators are living in nursing homes, said Wes Bledsoe, founder of the non-profit organization A Perfect Cause. His grandmother died after being victimized in an Oklahoma City nursing home in 2000. He formed the group to crusade for protecting the nation’s frail elders in long-term care facilities from sexual offenders.

Bledsoe has been pushing for state laws and federal legislation for required background checks and separate nursing homes for sexual offenders.

His research of the Medicare database and state registries for sexual offenders found 1,600 registered sex offenders were living in nursing homes in the United States. That figure, which includes 60 murders, is believed to be an underestimate because it does not include non-registered offenders who are high risk, parolees and assaults occurring inside facilities that go unreported. His research involved data from 2002 through 2006.

The state of Oklahoma passed legislation in June requiring background checks and a separate nursing home for sex offenders. The state is planning to hire a private entity to build and manage an offenders’ nursing home, Bledsoe said. Oklahoma plans to start with one facility to serve the state.

“My hope is Florida will follow Oklahoma’s lead and not just look at background checks but also separate and secure facilities,” he said.

Florida Sen. Durell Peaden Jr., R-Crestview, had co-sponsored the bill in Florida that would require background checks of all nursing home residents, which was passed by the Senate but failed in the House.

“The House will be put on notice to pass this,” Peaden said of next year’s session when he and co-sponsors will bring the Florida bill back next session. “We have to make ours more stringent. They have got to be separated.”

What it costs for the background checks and to provide a separate facility should not be a factor because the government owes it to the families of vulnerable nursing-home residents to make sure they are safe, Peaden said.

Banning is retiring later this month and said she is dedicating her time to making sure a law gets passed in Florida.

Ironically, her testimony Wednesday before the House subcommittee comes six years to the date of her mother’s assault. Her mother has since passed away.

“Families have a right to know,” she said. “(My mother’s assault) could have been prevented. I am not going to stop until there is a change.”

The purpose of the hearing is to investigate the size and scope of the problem and what role the federal government might play to stop it, U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., said in a statement about organizing the hearing.

“The rare case of sexual assault and abuse that have been documented in these facilities are particularly abhorrent,” she said. “I look forward to working with our nursing homes to guarantee the kind of safe environment that our seniors and their families deserve.”

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