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May 19, 2005


Sex Offenders Living in Nursing Homes
April 24, 2005

Twice convicted of molesting children in Lake County, Thomas Kolze did his time in prison before being paroled to a nursing home in June 2003 because of heart and kidney problems. A caseworker assumed he wouldn't be a threat to elderly residents at Bement Health Care Center in central Illinois. After all, his past sex crimes involved children, not adults.
Less than six months later, a nurse aide spotted Kolze in the TV room rubbing an Alzheimer's patient's thighs and arms as she sat in a wheelchair, according to a state inspection report. Not long after, another employee saw Kolze cheek-to-cheek in the TV room touching the chest of another woman with dementia. Kolze, now 61, was sent back to prison, but he's out again. He's one of 100 registered sex offenders living in 54 nursing homes, other long-term care facilities and supportive living centers throughout Illinois, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
Half of the sex offenders in these homes are age 50 or younger -- something that's sounding alarm bells with advocates concerned about patient safety. The youngest is 23. "There are more young ones in Illinois than in any other state I've seen," said Wes Bledsoe, founder of A Perfect Cause, a nursing home watchdog group that has studied the sex-offender issue across the country.
The elderly, disabled or mentally ill residents in these homes -- and the family members who visit them -- typically have no idea they're sharing a roof with convicted sex criminals. The state doesn't require nursing homes to pass on that information to fellow residents.
Even the people who run the homes can be in the dark. "A lot of times we get this person and we don't know they're a sex offender, so we don't know that there are things we might need to do to ensure the safety of other residents," said Pat Comstock of the Illinois Health Care Association, a trade group whose members include nursing homes.
Anyone can find out if someone is a registered sex offender by running the person's name through the state's online sex-offender database. But that step currently isn't part of the screening for nursing home admissions. With the help of two patients' rights groups, the Sun-Times compiled its list by cross-checking the online registry with the addresses of nursing homes along with board and care facilities.
The newspaper also obtained information showing that 61 parolees convicted of non-sex crimes are living among the elderly and ill. But unlike sex offenders, who are required to annually report where they're living to the police for at least 10 years, other parolees' identities aren't known to the public.
Nationally, high-profile horror stories have put the issue of sex offenders in nursing homes on the front burner. Congress' investigative arm is set to release a report later this year. Closer to home, some south suburbs are taking extreme steps to fight the practice. Earlier this month, 10 sex offenders -- two of them allegedly not registered with the state -- were found to be living at Emerald Park Healthcare Center in Evergreen Park. Community outrage spurred village trustees last week to ban all sex offenders from living in long-term care facilities within the town's borders. Three days later, leaders in nearby Bridgeview took the same step.
State says it screens residents
Some patient advocates say state and county agencies are too quick to turn to nursing homes when they're trying to place sex offenders on parole or probation. "The state should not be using nursing homes as a dumping ground," said Wendy Meltzer, staff attorney for Illinois Citizens for Better Care, a nursing home watchdog group. "You get the sense that the diagnosis was 'needs a roof over head.' "
State officials bristled at the "dumping ground" assertion. They say potential nursing home residents are screened to make sure there's a medical justification for placing them. They also note the number of sex offenders and parolees in long-term care facilities is miniscule, given that Illinois' nursing home population totals more than 100,000. "This is by far a very limited set of cases," said Deanne Benos, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, one of the government agencies that place sex offenders in nursing homes. "Certain facilities may have more of an expertise . . . to treat a certain type of individual."
Sex offenders often end up in long-term care facilities after being paroled from state prisons or being placed on probation by county judges. Some are referred by state-run mental health centers. And some have simply grown old and need nursing care. This last group doesn't bother patient advocates as much as the younger, able-bodied offenders do. "Sex offenders who are physically mobile and therefore potentially pose a risk to other residents, to staff, to visitors or visitors' children should not be in nursing homes absent a really compelling reason . . . and a very safe plan for how everybody else will be protected from them," Meltzer said.
Nursing home industry officials note that many of these younger offenders are placed in homes that cater to the mentally ill, not strictly a geriatric population. But patient advocates point out that younger offenders can -- and do -- end up alongside elderly "sitting ducks," especially now that nursing homes are more likely to take people paid for with public aid dollars to fill a growing number of empty beds. Increasing options for long-term care have taken a toll on homes' bottom lines.
"Yes, we have had reports of it," said Donna Ginther, a Springfield lobbyist for AARP. "We generally hear of them on the back end, after there's been a re-offense." Members of AARP, the nursing home industry and state agencies last year began looking at ways to better handle the sex offender and parolee population in nursing homes. Several ideas are being weighed.
A key issue is that criminal history isn't part of the screening process for placing people in nursing homes. One proposal is to run all applicants' names through the sex offender database before admitting them to a facility. The state also could require nursing homes to notify other residents and their families if a sex offender is on the premises.
Legislation pending in the General Assembly could factor in, too. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Chicago) would limit one sex offender to one address, though it's unclear whether it would apply to nursing homes if passed. One nursing home owner said it's not unheard of for groups attempting to place sex offenders in nursing homes to "try to pull the wool over your eyes."
"I had a case five years ago where a state institution hid the [psychiatric] records of someone who was potentially violent," said Melvin Siegel, owner of several Downstate nursing homes and board member of the Illinois Nursing Home Administrators Association. "It was a state institution that wanted to empty the bed." Siegel would not identify which one. "That's what you always have to watch for, whether they're coming from a hospital or a jail," he said. "You have to be very cautious about any potential admission because of the possibility that they may be hiding things just to get rid of the patient." Siegel said nursing homes view sex offenders as "an opportunity and a problem." "The opportunity is you get to fill your beds," he said. "But you may be taking on a problem that is not appropriate for your present patient mix. Some [nursing homes] are greedy."
Problems with sex offenders in nursing homes have cropped up across the country. The Minnesota attorney general last year sued a Minneapolis nursing home after allegations that two sex offenders in the facility had abused other residents. In a Florida long-term care facility in 2002, Virginia Thurston, 77, was raped in her nursing home bed by an 83-year-old convicted sex offender living in the same home. He propped his wheelchair against the door so employees couldn't get in. "I put her in a nursing home to keep her safe, and my worst fear was realized," said the woman's daughter, Sandra Banning, 56, of Jacksonville, Fla. Banning is now working with state lawmakers who are calling for criminal background checks on all nursing home applicants.
"Being a sexual offender is an illness," she said. "I don't think they should be placed somewhere with vulnerable adults who are just like children." Neither does Bledsoe of A Perfect Cause. "When you put predators in with the prey," he said, "somebody's going to get bit."
Giving people a second chance
But outside of the 2003 incident involving Kolze at the central Illinois nursing home in Bement, there is scant evidence of sex offenders committing crimes in nursing homes and similar facilities here. Advocates say that doesn't mean there isn't a problem. Abuse in nursing homes is notoriously underreported, according to a congressional report in 2002.
A consortium of nursing homes called Sharon Health Care in Peoria houses eight sex offenders -- the most in the state. An administrator of one of the Sharon homes said the two sex offenders in his facility are so old and medically compromised, they're not a threat. Nonetheless, he doesn't share their criminal history with other residents -- a practice many administrators said they follow. "I'm big on second chances," said Randall Bauer, administrator at Sharon Health Care Pines. "A lot of times individuals can be rehabilitated. And if their issues are entirely medical now, why impact their life negatively?"
In other nursing homes, however, some offenders are getting out into the community and getting into trouble with the law. Karey D. Wallace, for example, was living at the Wilson Care nursing home on Chicago's North Side when police arrested him in October for trying to rob a nearby video store. The 35-year-old is now back in prison. Larry Oliver, 50, was living at the California Gardens nursing home near Cook County Jail when he was arrested a little over a year ago for drug possession. He's back in prison, too. At Emerald Park Healthcare Center in Evergreen Park -- which had the distinction of having the most sex offenders in the state, 10, until a police sweep earlier this month -- only two of the offenders remain. Most of the others were shipped to different nursing homes. After the sweep, one was arrested for hanging out too close to a school when he went out for a supervised walk with his fellow residents.
Emerald Park's administrator did not return telephone calls about the new ban on sex offenders living in the village's long-term care facilities. While the ban clearly is directed at Emerald Park, it also could affect Kolze, the sex offender who was sent back to prison for touching the elderly women at the Bement nursing home in 2003. Suffering from a stroke and a host of other medical problems, he's now living in Genesis Place, a 16-bed "supportive living" home for seniors also in Evergreen Park.
Village President James Sexton recently said Kolze would need to move out because of the ban, but Genesis Place's director said Friday she believes the home doesn't fit the village's definition of a long-term care facility and that Kolze will be able to stay. Sexton couldn't be reached to respond. Kolze came to Genesis Place from Graham Correctional Center in September. He's been a model resident "who's made mistakes just like you and I," said Valencia Whitely, executive director of Interdependent Living Solutions, which operates Genesis Place. In a telephone interview, Kolze denied ever sexually abusing anybody in Bement.
"I didn't touch the old woman they said I touched. I was being nice to her and I held her hand," he said. "She couldn't talk and she had a feeding tube in her stomach, but she had a nice smile. . . . There was no crime."

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