WATERVILLE — Police are investigating allegations that an employee of an assisted living residence sexually abused a woman living there.

Staff at Sunset Home, a 20-bed private residence on College Avenue that serves elderly women, called the Waterville Police Department Thursday afternoon to report the allegations, Deputy Chief Charles Rumsey said.

Rumsey said no charges have been filed in the case, but that the investigation by department detectives is ongoing and could lead to criminal charges in the near future.

The department is working with the state Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the allegations, Rumsey said.

John Martins, spokesman for the state health department, said the agency typically investigates such claims to ensure the safety of all patients and clients at the residence.

The state’s licensing agency is “currently involved in an investigation of Sunset Home,” he said.

Bill McKeagney, the head administrator at Sunset, said administrators are taking the allegations seriously.

“We’re taking steps to address it,” he said.

McKeagney said Sunset always conducts a pre-employment background check before hiring someone. He said the employee who is accused of the crime no longer works at the home.

McKeagney said he wouldn’t comment further because he didn’t want to compromise an ongoing investigation.

Scope of problem unknown

Maine has 325 assisted living residences that, like Sunset Home, serve the elderly and are licensed with the Department of Health and Human Services.

No one knows how often sexual abuse of those who live in such homes happens in the state, because the crime often goes unreported.

A 2000 study from the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that only 30 percent of sexual assault victims aged 65 or older reported the crime to authorities.

Even for those cases that are reported, there are no meaningful measures of the prevalence of the crime, according to Holly Harmon, director of quality improvement and regulatory affairs for the Maine Health Care Association, who has 17 years of experience in the health care field.

“Because of the confidential nature of the reporting and the investigation, we have not been privy to reporting or statistics that say this is the number of allegations of sexual abuse and this is the number confirmed or substantiated,” Harmon said.

On a national level, studies report that victims of elder sexual abuse are overwhelmingly female, and their assailants are most often caregivers, either in the home or in a nursing home.

Research studies show that dementia and other forms of cognitive impairment can make it difficult for victims to communicate, which is an obstacle for law enforcement and prosecution.

A study by the National Institute of Justice found that, because of this, those who sexually abuse the elderly are less likely to be convicted than those who abuse younger victims. There is a lower likelihood that charges will be brought and the assailant found guilty, according to the justice institute.

Harmon, who actively participates in statewide health care policy discussions, said she suspects Maine’s nursing homes and assisted living homes are effective at identifying and dealing with cases.

“As far as our awareness of this issue for regulatory forces in the state, this has not come forward as an issue that has required a special focus.”

Safeguards

Maine’s elder care facilities have an effective strategy when it comes to preventing sex crimes against their residents, according to Nadine Grosso, vice president at the Maine Health Care Association.

It’s a fairly straightforward system. They check the backgrounds of prospective employees before hiring them, they comply with a mandatory reporting system, and they fire anyone found guilty of abuse.

The background check is designed to figure out whether a person has abused anyone in the past. It includes not only a search of the person’s criminal history, but information from the sex offender registry, a federal exclusion list, and the appropriate professional registries for licensed health care workers in the state.

“If you’re doing your screening, you’re probably checking three or four different sources,” Grosso said.

Once hired, employees are bound by state law to report any reasonable suspicions that an adult has been or is likely to be abused, neglected or exploited. Anyone who has assumed responsibility for the care or custody of an incapacitated or dependent adult is considered a mandated reporter.

And if an employee is determined to have abused a resident, the employee is typically fired. If the employee is prosecuted, the conviction appears on that person’s criminal background. Even if there is no criminal case, the employee’s entry in the professional registry is annotated, letting future potential employers in the field know about the incident.

Harmon said that elderly people, especially those who can’t verbalize their needs, are at a greater level of risk. However, she said, nursing homes and assisted living facilities shouldn’t be thought of as dangerous places for seniors.

Sexual elder abuse happens in private homes, too, and in those cases, there is often no one to notice the crime, or to whom the victim can appeal for help.

“Within the nursing homes, there is 24-hour staff supervision,” Harmon said. “That is a positive. Things are reported in a timely manner, which is a deterrent.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 [email protected] Twitter: @hh_matt

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