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After Hacienda sex assault, Arizona panel moves to prevent further abuse

The Hacienda HealthCare facility is shown Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — A month after an incapacitated woman gave birth at a Phoenix long-term care facility, a state panel is calling on Arizona lawmakers and agencies to make policy changes to protect vulnerable adults from sexual abuse.

The Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council on Tuesday released a list of recommendations they say would bolster the ability to recognize and prevent sexual abuse, including more training on how to report it and protections for those who do so.

“I realize that all of these can’t possibly be made in this one legislative session,” executive director Erica McFadden said. “This is going to have to be an intentional commitment of time and attention over the long haul for any substantial change to be made in the entire system.”

A task force was created to work on the report in September, but the subject took on new urgency with the discovery of the sexual assault and birth at Hacienda HealthCare. Authorities launched a criminal investigation after the 29-year-old victim gave birth to a baby boy on Dec. 29 to the shock of Hacienda’s staff, who had no idea she was pregnant.

Phoenix police arrested Nathan Sutherland, a licensed practical nurse, on Jan. 23. The 36-year-old man’s DNA matched a DNA sample taken from the newborn, investigators said.

Besides the criminal investigation, the Arizona State Board of Nursing is looking into whether any other nurses failed to report anything.

The fallout also led to the resignation of Hacienda’s CEO and to two doctors no longer providing services there. Per the state’s request, Hacienda hired a third-party management team to take over day-to-day operations. But Gov. Doug Ducey has said he wants the state to look into other action that can be taken against the provider’s board of directors.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the inconsistency of training in how to spot signs of abuse and report it, McFadden said. At some facilities, an employee may only have to undergo training once. Other places may do it annually.

The report also proposes that anyone who failed to report abuse of a vulnerable adult should face a felony charge rather than a misdemeanor.

“It’s not a felony like reporting child abuse. Why is that not consistent? It should be the same,” McFadden said. “Keep in mind this isn’t for bystanders. These are for people responsible for caring for vulnerable adults and children.”

Another issue is if employed caregivers are afraid to report anything out of fear of retaliation or getting fired. While there are limited protections, there are few safeguards against getting demoted or penalized, McFadden added.

High staffing turnover rates also don’t help matters. An employee who has spent little time with a patient might miss a subtle behavior change or other nuance. Hacienda had 31 vacant full-time and part-time positions in December, according to the report.


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