April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to shed light on a subject that, for most people, might conjure up images of college students at alcohol-infused parties, or joggers on dark, lonely roads. Most people, when thinking of sexual assault victims, probably don’t think of seniors in nursing homes. Perhaps they should. A recent CNN investigation found that claims of rape in nursing homes are widespread, but difficult to document and substantiate due to the victims’ circumstances. Many perpetrators of sexual assault seek out victims who are already vulnerable and may have trouble defending themselves or speaking out. This makes seniors in nursing homes especially susceptible, as they depend heavily on others for their most basic and most intimate needs, and may have diminished physical or mental capacity.
Sexual assault of the elderly is difficult to think about, but it’s important to stay aware of possible warning signs in case you ever need to help protect a loved one from such horrific abuse. If you visit someone in a nursing home or know an isolated, homebound senior who depends heavily on others, pay attention to any sudden changes in behavior or new, unexplained physical injuries. Trauma from such abuse can manifest in countless ways, including anxiety, depression, loss of appetite, loss of interest in socializing, or fear of talking around certain people. A strained relationship with a caregiver can also be a red flag. (Of course, all of these signs may have other causes.) Keep in mind that talking about sexual assault is difficult for victims of any age, but it may be especially hard for seniors who feel a lack of control over their everyday lives. If you suspect sexual abuse of an elderly person, the best thing to do may be to make sure that they have regular contact with someone they can talk to and confide in safely. You can also tell them about their options for reporting an assault and seeking help.
If a nursing home resident is in immediate danger or has been assaulted recently, they always have the option – and the right – to call 911. When law enforcement gets involved, preserving evidence from a recent assault becomes an important factor to consider. Victims should always be the one to decide whether to undergo a forensic exam, but they may need to be made aware that there is a limited time during which evidence can be gathered, e.g., before showering and changing clothes. This can be difficult for nursing homes residents, as facility staff often control their personal care schedules.
Suspected abuse can always be reported to Adult Protective Services (APS) through the senior’s local Department of Social Services. If the victim is not ready to talk to APS, but wants to discuss their options with a liaison, consider contacting a local long-term-care ombudsman at North Carolina’s Area Agencies on Aging. An ombudsman’s sole purpose is to help residents of long-term-care facilities. You can find past complaints against a facility on the federal Medicare website or the Nursing Home Licensure and Certification Section of the North Carolina Division of Health Service Regulation. You can also lodge new complaints with that North Carolina agency.
Another resource for victims is the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, a statewide group that coordinates with local rape crises centers, which offer a wide range of supportive services for victims of all ages.
Cases of sexual abuse against seniors can be especially challenging to uncover and prove, but there are special legal protections for elderly victims. While rape and assault against anyone are illegal in North Carolina, state law provides for greater punishment for assaults against disabled or elderly adults, patients of residential health care facilities and handicapped persons. (See North Carolina General Statutes 14-32.1, 14-32.2, 14-32.3).
Although sexual assault of seniors is difficult to contemplate and challenging to investigate, we all have the potential to make a difference by staying aware of warning signs and knowing how to get help.
Jennifer Stuart is an attorney in Raleigh with Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Senior Law Project (SLP). She writes monthly articles about legal issues affecting seniors. The SLP provides free civil legal help to North Carolinians who are 60 or older. To contact the SLP, call 1-877-579-7562 (toll-free), Monday through Friday, 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m.