By Encarnacion Pyle
State lawmakers want to close a loophole that requires neighbors to be notified when a registered sex offender moves into a nursing home but not the people who live there or their families.
“As it stands now, if I live next to a nursing home, I’m going to be notified if a sex offender moves in. But if I’m in the room with a sex offender, I probably won’t know it,” said Beverley Laubert, the state’s long-term-care ombudsman with the Ohio Department of Aging.
Current law requires notification of anyone living within 1,000 feet of a sex offender. However, it does not require nursing-home administrators to notify residents, family members or guardians.
Legislation in Gov. John Kasich’s mid-biennium budget review would require administrators of nursing homes and assisted-living centers to check the names of all prospective residents against the state’s electronic sex-offender registry.
They also would be required to assess the potential risks of admitting that person and to create a plan if they do that includes information about how they would provide a safe environment for everyone, including the offender.
The administrators would then have to tell the other residents and their family members or guardians that a sex offender had moved in and describe the plan to protect them. They also would be required to help sex offenders change their addresses with the local sheriff’s office if they haven’t done so themselves.
“We’re simply trying to correct an unintended consequence of the original law. It’s that simple,” said Bonnie Burman, director of the Department of Aging.
The new requirements are part of a larger bill that could go to the House for a vote this week. Ohio lawmakers have tried several times to change state law so that nursing-home residents are notified when a registered sex offender moves in, but those efforts have failed.
Nationwide, 14 states have enacted laws related to sex offenders in long-term-care facilities, but only five of them require that other residents be notified.
“I think it would be a good first step,” state Sen. Capri Cafaro said. “Anything that promotes better protection of the frail and vulnerable older adults in our state is worth pursuing.”
In 2010, Cafaro, a Democrat from Hubbard in northeastern Ohio, introduced a provision aimed at identifying when the most-serious offenders intended to move into a facility. That bill included a measure to fine facilities $100 a day per violation if they didn’t comply.
A Dispatch investigation at the time found that 110 nursing-home residents and six employees statewide were registered sex offenders. Fifty-one were concentrated in four nursing homes, including 26 at Carlton Manor in Washington Court House. That one closed this year after the Ohio Department of Health revoked its license because of failed inspections and a history of problems.
While admirable in concept, the law might prove to be a difficult balancing act, said Jane Straker, a senior researcher at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.
“Who doesn’t want to take care of frail, older adults if we perceive that they might be in danger? But sex offenders can also be frail, older adults in need of help,” she said. “It’s a huge dilemma, and I don’t know the answer.”
Straker said research hasn't been able to show a link between resident abuse and registered sex offenders in long-term care. And predicting which residents are likely to abuse others has been problematic.
Some people worry that notification would create unnecessary fear among the other residents and their families.
“If you ship out a notice that you've just admitted a sex offender, a mass exodus will probably ensue, and no one wants that,” said Peter Van Runkle, the executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, a nursing-home industry group.
To prevent that from happening, he predicts that most nursing homes would simply say they don’t have the staff and other resources to meet a sex offender’s needs.
And if a nursing home did accept a registered sex offender, “would it become a scarlet letter?” asked Steve Wermuth, interim president and CEO of LeadingAge, which represents nonprofit nursing homes.
But state officials said those fears are unfounded.
When it has been previously revealed that a sex offender has lived at a nursing home, “nothing awful has happened,” said Laubert, the state’s ombudsman.