Sexual harassment and assault may be something you associate with college parties or unprofessional work environments, but it’s not contained to these places. Many nursing home patients face sexual assault, especially those who are impaired in some way. Any survivors of assault may face deep trauma, and elderly nursing home residents may have trouble voicing what—either because they were attacked by one of their caregivers, or because their ability to think and speak clearly has been diminished.
Sexual assault is a crime, but it’s also a deeply personal wound—and our criminal justice system doesn’t address this side of the issue. Our nursing home abuse team at Silbowitz, Garafola, Silbowitz, Schatz & Frederick, L.L.P. cares about the victims who must deal with the consequences of others’ misconduct. We are here to help nursing home residents hold their abusers accountable in court.
Over 20,000 Incidents in 20 Years
It’s hard to know the true number of sexual abuse cases that occur in nursing homes because many go unreported. From what we do know, it is, unfortunately, a widespread and frequent problem. Around 8% of elder abuse cases involve unwanted sexual interactions. A CNN investigation found that between 2013 and 2016, the federal government cited over 1,000 nursing homes across the country for insufficient protections against sexual abuse and assault or handling reports poorly.
Those who are abused may not have recourse; it’s estimated that only 30% of elderly survivors take their accusations to the authorities. Many fail to even report to nursing home staff. Reasons for their reticence may include:
- Feelings of shame or guilt (which may be even stronger among men who are abused)
- Fear of retaliation, especially if their abuser is also their caregiver
- Inability to report (do not remember abuse or cannot speak well enough)
- Fear of being disbelieved, especially among those with mental health issues
- Failure of caregivers to properly deal with issues of sexual abuse
Even when abuse survivors do not discuss the incident, differences in behavior or health may signal trouble to caregivers and family members.
Signals of Sexual Abuse or Assault
Assault leaves scars both physical and mental. Even when someone feels uncomfortable speaking about what happened to them, people who know them well may be able to spot these telltale signs of sexual abuse.
- Anger or anxiety
- Panic attacks or other signs of PTSD
- Failure to comply with nurse instructions
- Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
- Refusal to work with certain CNAs
- Social withdrawal
Caregivers may also notice physical signs of abuse including:
- Bruises on the inner thighs or genital areas or around breasts
- STDs or genital bleeding
- Stains (including blood) on clothing
- Signs of discomfort when sitting or walking that did not previously present
If you believe a loved one has been sexually abused but doesn’t want to talk about it, the best thing you can do is let them know you are there to help them no matter what, and you will believe them if they ever need to tell you anything. You can help battle the stigma and fear that surround reporting someone for assault.
Attackers Target Vulnerable Residents
Most nursing home patients have medical conditions that could be taken advantage of by ill-intentioned attackers. However, some characteristics seem to put residents at higher risk of sexual abuse. They include:
- Being a woman—though men may also face abuse
- Cognitive impairment, especially dementia and disorientation to time
- Difficulty or inability to walk
- Inability to manage one’s own finances
Aggressors may target these individuals because they are less able to defend themselves, and more likely to have their reports questioned.
Perpetrators of nursing home sexual assault also share some demographic trends. Research is split on whether co-residents or caretakers are the most likely to assault others, but overall, the vast majority of sexual abusers already know their victims. A review of many cases found that attackers were often:
- Adult men
- Nursing home staff or patients
- Family members
- Cognitively impaired or dealing with mental illness
- Those with a history of substance use, sexual abuse, or other criminal activity
In fact, some nursing home residents are mostly able-bodied convicted sex offenders, who may see co-residents’ disabilities as a weakness to be exploited. Cognitively impaired attackers often had degeneration in the parts of their brains that affected the suppression of sexual feelings, a common symptom among dementia patients.
Responding to Elder Sexual Assault
It’s terrifying to hear that your loved one has been harassed or assaulted in their nursing home, a place that was supposed to keep them safe. Of course, you want to help them get away from their attacker, but they may also need related care: Sexual assault causes both physical and emotional distress. If you are unsure whether to take the issue to court, a nursing home abuse lawyer can advise you and answer any questions you may have. By suing the perpetrator, you and your loved one may be able to pursue compensation to cover medical bills and emotional damages. Seeing justice done may also help a survivor in their recovery.
Of course, having to recount the details of sexual assault can be traumatic, especially if the survivor has not had time to heal. The New York statute of limitations allows up to five years for someone to move for recompense after sexual assault. If you are thinking of filing, however, you may want to speak to an attorney soon to ensure the process can be completed before the statute of limitations expires.
If you have a nursing home sexual assault case, contact us online or call (646) 681-7055 to speak with one of our caring lawyers.