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Nursing home background-check bill sees strong opposition

The Fresh River Healthcare nursing home in East Windsor.
The Fresh River Healthcare nursing home in East Windsor.

A bill that would require long-term care facilities to check if prospective residents have a criminal history or are on the sex offender registry before they are admitted drew some heated opposition Wednesday from organizations representing providers and an advocate for abolishing the sex offender registry.

The bill is sponsored by State Sen. Saud Anwar, whose district includes East Windsor, home of the Fresh River Healthcare nursing home. Last May, Miguel Lopez, a convicted rapist and a registered sex offender in Massachusetts with a warrant out for his arrest at the time, allegedly locked a female employee in his room at the nursing home and tried to force her to perform oral sex.

Fresh River officials sent Lopez back to Massachusetts the same day that the incident occurred. He was eventually arrested on a warrant by East Windsor police and charged with attempted first-degree sexual assault, third-degree sexual assault and first-degree unlawful restraint. He is being held on $300,000 bail. His next court appearance is March 29.

Lopez wasn’t known to local police at the time he was admitted to Fresh River Healthcare because of a loophole in Connecticut’s sex offender laws, which do not require nursing home operators to inform state police when they admit a registered sex offender from another state into one of their facilities.

The law currently places the burden on sex offenders themselves to register, but Anwar wants to hold the nursing home providers more accountable by requiring them to determine if any potential resident is a registered sex offender by seeking a criminal background check through the state Department of Public Health.

The bill would bar long-term care facilities from admitting people with a “disqualifying offense” without a waiver. Disqualifying offenses range from assault, rape and kidnapping to burglary, criminal mischief and trespassing.

Mag Morelli, president of LeadingAge Connecticut, an association representing not-for-profit provider organizations serving older adults, told the Public Health Committee during Wednesday’s public hearing that “from an implementation perspective, this proposal raises numerous concerns.”

“It appears that the facility will be barred from admitting an applicant until it receives notification of the background check from DPH. It is unclear how long an available bed might need to be held open for the duration of a background check,” Morelli said.

“Moreover, many applicants on waiting lists will need to be re-checked each time a bed becomes available given that a prior background check only remains effective for one month. While there are exceptions for short term rehab admissions, or for conditional admissions of 60 days or less, these situations will be affected by the discharge and eviction limitations discussed above,” Morelli said.

She suggested that the committee convene a work group to evaluate and address the concerns that led to the bill being raised rather than pass the proposal.

Others in opposition to the bill said that legislators were overreacting to an isolated incident and that the legislation as proposed would punish more people than it would help.

“The proposal is extremely overbroad and would potentially disqualify anyone, including a vulnerable or elderly person, from admission to a long-term care facility, nursing home, or an assisted living facility because they were convicted sometime in their life of certain offenses, even if such conviction occurred decades before,” said Deborah Del Prete Sullivan, legal counsel for the Office of the Chief Public Defender.

Sullivan said that crimes for which a person could be denied admission include breach of peace, criminal trespass and criminal mischief.

“While serious violent offenses are included in the list of disqualifying offenses, there is no look-back in the proposal,” Sullivan said. “As a result, a person convicted of a felony while in their late teens or twenties would not be admitted even if 10, 20, 30 or more years had passed since the conviction.”

At one point, Anwar and Cindy Prizio, executive director One Standard of Justice, an advocate for restorative justice practices and a critic of the sex offender registry, got into a heated argument about the bill after she called it “a public policy disaster in the making” during her testimony.

“Please don’t allow one sensational crime to turn good intentions into bad policy,” Prizio said. “We all want to protect our vulnerable populations. OSJ stands ready to provide help to the committee in developing an effective solution.”

Prizio said there’s no “need to create a new bill every time there is an isolated high-profile incident” and that the bill is unfair to a class of people who already have had their rights “sucked dry by the system.”

Anwar responded that his bill is simply protect nursing home employees who had no idea a registered sex offender had been admitted to their facility.

“This provides a safety net for the people who work in long-term care facilities,” Anwar said. “There is a risk assessment that will need to be done, and that doesn’t mean someone still can’t be admitted to a facility, but just that the people who work there will know who they are taking care of.”

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