01/20/2012 04:35 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Staff fired after New Brunswick government finds cases of abuse at care homes

Eleven care home workers in New Brunswick have been fired or left their jobs over the past two years after various violations were found including inappropriate sexual conduct and a blow to a resident's face, provincial government records say.

In eight cases, staff physically harmed residents who are elderly or have mental or physical disabilities, according to a summary of abuse under the province's Family Services Act from Jan. 1, 2010, until September of last year.

"That is very alarming. Even one is too many," said Cecile Cassista, president of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents' Rights.

"There should be no room for that kind of treatment. ... There has to be zero tolerance."

The records were obtained by The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation. They examined incidents at nursing, special care and group homes.

Altogether, 40 of the roughly 2,200 complaints filed over the past two years with the province's Social Development department resulted in findings of abuse, the records show.

Thirteen were cases of neglect or abuse of residents by owners or staff, and 27 were cases of residents abusing other residents, which in most instances involved unwanted sexual contact.

Seven staff were fired for physical abuse, one co-owner was deemed to no longer meet requirements to run a home, one staff member was dismissed for inappropriate sexual advances and another was fired for verbally abusing a resident, according to the records. One staff member retired in the midst of an investigation into "inappropriate behaviour."

The department provided general descriptions of the abuse but declined to elaborate on the incidents or the condition of the victims, citing confidentiality of the residents. It also declined to say whether it referred any of the cases to police.

Social Development Minister Sue Stultz said the Conservative government is planning to improve protection of seniors over the next year.

She said the province is working on a way to include the provincial ombudsman in investigations of abuse in long-term care facilities, as well as creating a seniors' charter of rights.

"Elder abuse is a very important issue and we do take it seriously," she said in an interview.

"We investigate all reports and I feel we do the best we can when we investigate the reports. We contact the police when we think the cases warrant criminal charges."

Two nursing homes and one special care home had repeat instances of abuse within a one-year period, the records say.

In March of last year, one of two co-owners of Foyer Perron, a special care home in Saint-Francois-de-Madawaska, N.B., was "verbally and physically abusive to a resident," the summary said.

The department investigated and asked the co-owner to stop working at the home. He did.

Steve Perron, the co-owner who stopped working at the home, disagrees with the province's conclusion that he was physically abusive to a resident.

He said the resident punched him in the face during the incident in question. He said he responded by restraining her on the kitchen floor and keeping her under control until police arrived.

"When it becomes dangerous for us or other residents, you can't let things go on," he said.

Two months after that incident was reported, the province reported another instance of physical abuse at the home, saying a resident was injured "after a fall." The resident was moved to another home.

The province recommended that staff be educated to better deal with residents in various situations.

Co-owner Melissa Perron said she has since taken a course in non-violent intervention.

"I have spoken with my employees (about the abuse) ... and I have spoken with the residents as well about it," she said.

At Maloney House, a John Howard Society group home for disabled adults in Saint John, N.B., two employees were fired for physically abusing a resident in August 2010, the department says.

Margot Butler, the director of the society in Saint John, said the report is accurate and she had nothing further to add.

At the Grand Manan Nursing Home, one employee was fired after a licensed practical nurse "hit a resident in the face" in March of last year, the provincial records say.

Joanne Ingalls, director of the home, said the incident at her home was reported and acted upon promptly.

"There is zero tolerance for any kind of physical abuse in our nursing home," said Ingalls.

At York Care Centre in Fredericton, one of the largest care homes in the province, there were three cases of abuse in the last 18 months, the summary said.

It said in May 2010, a staff member was verbally and physically abusive towards a resident, resulting in the employee's dismissal. Two months earlier, another staff member was fired for verbal abuse.

In March of last year, a resident physically abused another resident. Sitters were later hired to keep watch on one of the residents to prevent repeated violence, the summary said.

Ken McGeorge, the nursing home's president, said it quickly acts upon any reports of staff harming residents.

He said one reason for resident-on-resident abuse is the rising number of residents with advanced frontal-lobe dementia, which can result in aggressive outbursts.

"We have higher proportions of folk who present with varying degrees of dementia and Alzheimer's issues, so the job is not easy," McGeorge said.

"But our job as an employer is to help our employees understand that and deal with it and I think we're doing a better and better job with it."

McGeorge said the residence is now running training courses designed by registered nurses to avoid abuse and three staff have been sent on courses to detect abuse.

The department also found a case of what it described as "emotional neglect and self-care neglect" at Pat's Special Care Home in Shediac, N.B., but the former owner of that home disputes the province's findings.

Officials said they received a complaint alleging that the former owner and an employee did not respect residents' confidentiality nor provide 24-hour supervision. The former owner also discussed personal issues "resulting in undue stress on clients," says the April 2011 report.

After conducting an investigation, the department concluded the allegations were substantiated. A government spokeswoman said the care home was later sold and is under new management, but added that the closure was not a result of the investigation.

But Pat Meloche, the home's former owner, said he disagrees with the investigation's conclusions.

He denies discussing inappropriate personal matters with residents or breaching their confidentiality, saying the allegations were based on false accounts given by one resident.

He also said he provided care around the clock.

"I lived in the house where the care home is," he said. "I was there 24 hours per day."

Stultz said the department developed an abuse protection program in 2009 that includes a half-day course for special care home employees. It includes information on how to report abuse, what abuse is, and how to avoid it, she said.

She also said the number of abuse cases shows that families are increasingly aware of the adult protection program and are reporting incidents for investigation.