Violence in One State's Nursing Homes Has Lead to Four Resident Murders in Two Years

In the past two years, at least four residents of North Carolina rest homes have been killed by fellow patients who had histories of severe mental illness and violence. In such situations, psychiatric mental patients are often far younger than the elderly residents with whom they are housed. These younger stronger residents pose a threat to the older residents in poor health. Three out of the four resident murders since 2008 happened to residents over the age of 60.

The Disability Rights North Carolina, an advocacy group filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department on Monday that contends the state is in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act for failing to provide proper housing for people with mental illness and failing to police the often dangerous conditions in these homes, which are licensed and inspected by the state.

Lanier Cansler, the state's secretary for Health and Human Services, said that if mentally ill patients weren't housed in rest homes, many would be on the street. Cansler said supervising the quality of care provided to patients in rest homes is already a priority but there are limits to what his department can do.

"We really need a better system," Cansler said. "With the staff we have, we do well to visit these facilities annually, unless a complaint is filed. There is obviously an issue with having the resources to do all the things we need to do. We've not yet been given the authority to print money at DHHS. You can do everything you can to be efficient and effective with the way you use the available funds, but you can only stretch the dollars so far."

The explosion of mental patients in rest homes is an unintended result of a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that mandated that people be cared for in their home communities whenever possible, rather than being institutionalized in large state hospitals. In an effort to comply, North Carolina downsized its state-run psychiatric hospitals and disbanded county-run mental health agencies in favor of a plan to treat patients through a network of private, for-profit companies. As a result, rest homes, traditionally used in North Carolina to care for elderly patients, began accepting increasing numbers of younger patients who would have previously been confined to psychiatric hospitals. For more, read the story.

Robert W. Carter, Jr. is a Virginia attorney whose law practice is dedicated to protecting the rights of the victims of nursing home and assisted living neglect and abuse in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Lynchburg, Danville, Charlottesville, and across Virginia.

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