Deaths of Florida's elderly who were abused or neglected to get increased scrutiny under new law
Suspected cases of abuse of Florida’s seniors may get increased scrutiny after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill this week approving the creation of elder abuse fatality review teams across the state.
The review teams are authorized by Senate Bill 400, one of 25 bills DeSantis signed into law this week.
The new law allows, but does not mandate, the creation of elder death review teams in each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits. The teams would review cases in their judicial circuit where abuse or neglect has been found to be related to or the cause of an elderly person’s death.
For years, Florida has authorized teams to review child deaths and domestic-violence deaths due to abuse. But there has been no comparable review when an elderly adult dies, even under suspicious circumstances.
Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, has sponsored the bill for the last four years. She said it is “incumbent upon us as a state” to review cases of elder abuse and to look for gaps in service and possible policy changes to better protect the state’s seniors.
“It can help to reduce elder abuse if somebody knows that it’s going to be up for review if something happens to that senior,” said Gibson, the Senate minority leader. “The other thing is to prevent what happened in the cases they’re reviewing, to keep that from happening to another senior.”
Elder advocates say establishing elder death review teams in Florida could help cut the number of cases of nursing home neglect and mistreatment like those identified in a recent USA TODAY Network - Florida investigation.
As part of its investigation, USA TODAY Network - Florida reviewed 54 nursing home deaths from 2013 through 2017 where state inspectors cited neglect and mistreatment as factors. The network investigation found Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration rarely took action and often didn’t investigate the deaths.
The series also showed how AHCA rarely takes serious actions against poor-performing nursing homes and how it has allowed dozens of nursing homes to limp along for years, providing substandard care and abusing, neglecting and even killing patients with little consequence.
In case you missed it: Even when staffs cause patient deaths, Florida nursing homes face few penalties
As part of the new law, elder abuse fatality review teams can be established by state attorneys and would be part of the Department of Elder Affairs. They would be composed of volunteers and open to people from a variety of disciplines, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and elder law attorneys, county judges, nurses and other elder care advocates.
The Department of Elder Affairs is now required to submit an annual report to the governor, legislative leaders and the Department of Children and Families summarizing the findings of the state’s elder abuse fatality review teams.
The teams are limited to reviewing cases that have been closed by the State Attorney’s Office, regardless of whether the cases resulted in criminal prosecution, Gibson said. The State Attorney's Office just needs to be done with the case.
State attorneys didn’t prosecute any of the 54 nursing home deaths reviewed in the network's investigation.
“They can absolutely do that,” Gibson said of reviewing cases that didn’t end in criminal prosecution. “That’s part of their purpose.”
Gibson said she began pushing for the review teams after she was contacted by representatives with the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, who were interested in assembling their own elder abuse fatality review team.
The state has authorized child abuse death review committees for over 20 years and domestic violence death review teams for more than a decade. But there has been no comparable review when an elderly or vulnerable adult dies in Florida, even under suspicious circumstances.
The bill received unanimous support in the Senate earlier this year.
Gibson said the legislation hasn’t changed much over the past four years. She said she had to make some minor adjustments to the language of the bill to get buy-in from trial lawyers, and she said nursing home advocates were worried the review team members would be coming to their facilities to investigate, but “there’s nothing in the bill that says that.”
The Women’s Center of Jacksonville has had a coordinated community response team focused generally on elder abuse, neglect and exploitation. But the new law, which goes into effect July 1, will allow the team to evolve and to start looking at closed cases, said Eileen Rodden, the center’s community education director.
For the first time they will be able to look at the details of a case, how the investigation unfolded, how it was handled and if there are improvements that could save the lives of other seniors.
“We are so thrilled,” Rodden said. “This gives us another opportunity to improve the delivery of services that we all have and collectively work with our partners.”
Teresa Miles, executive director of the Women's Center, said she believes it would be worthwhile for state attorneys across Florida to establish review teams.
“Then we can learn from one another,” she said. “Each circuit is going to learn something different. If it’s somewhat standardized across the state, how we look at these things and what we do with that information, I think we’re all going to benefit from it.”
Gibson said she doesn’t know if the elder abuse fatality review teams will be involved with reviewing any cases involving COVID-19 deaths at the state’s long-term care facilities.
More than 1,450 residents and staff of the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilties have died as a result of the virus, according to Florida Department of Health data. Gibson said she didn’t know if those cases involved neglect or abuse.
“I’m going to let the teams dictate that.”
Ryan Mills is an investigative reporter with the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Connect with him at email@example.com, at facebook.com/ndnryan.mills or on Twitter @NDN_RMills.