To hear criminology professor Robert Gordon tell a nation-wide CBC Radio audience a few weeks ago, you’d think that action is readily, even automatically, taken to investigate suspected elder abuse when it is reported. You’d be mistaken to draw that conclusion.
The Current, CBC Radio’s flagship investigative program, profiled the tragic death of Betty Anne Gagnon, an Alberta woman living with her sister and brother-in-law, both of whom pleaded guilty to negligence in Ms. Gagnon’s death and are awaiting sentencing. The segment “What happened to Betty Anne Gagnon?” aired on June 18, 2013.
On air, Professor Gordon, Director of the School of Criminology at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, said, “The Public Guardians and Trustees in Canada have a responsibility to ensure that individuals (who are abused or neglected or those who neglect themselves)… are protected.”
Prof. Gordon said that legislation governing the Public Guardian and Trustee offices in each province ensures that the Public Guardian and Trustee (PGT), along with the health authorities and the police, “would be duty bound to actually investigate” complaints of elder abuse.
But how well does the Public Guardian and Trustee staff carry out those responsibilities and duties? And, how well are the criminal laws that supposedly protect citizens from elder abuse crimes being enforced? Let’s examine the evidence.
Reality: Media attention or exposing hidden video images can prompt action
Judging by the growing volume of disturbing cases brought to Seniors at Risk’s attention, reports of suspected elder abuse, and especially abuse by health care facility staff, are being routinely ignored by authorities, including and especially the police. Indeed CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti points out to Prof. Gordon that “family members tried to get help for Betty Anne (Gagnon) by calling the RCMP and various social agencies, but they say no one did anything.” You can read a written transcript of CBC Radio’s complete interview with Prof. Robert Gordon.
Sometimes elder abuse cases do get police attention, but usually only if the police are pressured by media attention or by the intervention of some influential body. To get that kind of attention usually requires a “smoking gun” – or the nursing home abuse equivalent, a “shocking video”.
Such a case recently occurred in Peterborough, Ontario when Camille Parent became concerned about the repeated severe bruising and injuries that his 85-year-old mother Helen MacDonald was continuing to suffer in St. Joseph’s at Fleming, a not-for-profit nursing home. When Mr. Parent raised concerns with the nursing home managers and staff, he was told his mother had been injured by other residents. Mr. Parent doubted their explanations and decided to install a hidden video camera in his mother’s room. The video images he obtained in just a few weeks showed disturbing video evidence of nursing care staff violently assaulting his mother, among other serious infractions and safety concerns. The case is now under investigation by Peterborough Police, and Mr. Parent has requested an inquiry independent of the Crown or government.
And, at the same nursing home, St. Joseph’s at Fleming, the Coroner and Peterborough Police are investigating the April 10, 2013 death of 91-year-old Eileen Mason. The staff called her son in the middle of the night and told him that his mother had fallen after climbing over the railing of her bed. “She looked like she got hit by a truck,” said son Gerry Mason after he rushed to Emergency. He didn’t believe the staff’s excuses either. He says that the medical records show many errors, written records crossed out, and even noted a “request” allegedly from another family member, a person who doesn’t exist. Global News reported that medical records “stated that his mother was to have new medication ‘as per daughter’s request’ – but Gerry Mason is an only child,” the woman has no daughter. Mr. Mason got his mother’s story out to other media, including the Peterborough Examiner, and the CBC. He believes media stories helped persuade police to take a greater interest in the case. An autopsy is being conducted into Eileen Mason’s death, and results are expected by the end of July. Gerry Mason is also calling for an inquiry into his mother’s death.
Lessons learned? Video evidence and media attention get the authorities’ attention. Without evidence or public pressure, people like Betty Anne Gagnon have little or no protection, even, and perhaps especially, in B.C.
Reality: Nursing homes collaborate with police to intimidate family
According to Professor Gordon, if Ms. Gagnon had been living in B.C. instead of Alberta, she might have been saved. “I happen to think that B.C. is among the more responsive of provinces and concerned about these situations…”, he says.
The facts do not support Gordon’s hypothesis; this is an “urban myth” perpetuated by many of the legal elites who operate in isolation, usually behind closed doors, particularly those operating in academia and on the judicial bench.
Not only does Prof. Gordon provide no data or examples to support his opinion, examples abound of police and other authorities expressing no interest in investigating elder abuse. In many of the cases reported to Seniors at Risk from B.C. and across the country, the staff of health care facilities have actually co-opted the muscle of local police to intimidate family members who raise concerns about their family members in care. Families are told that residential care facilities are private property, and the facilities have the right to restrict visiting or to ban selected people from their premises, effectively reducing outside scrutiny of resident care. We have documented reports of people being threatened with arrest by police – at the request of nursing home staff – simply because the person had brought a meal to share with their elderly parent.
Prof. Gordon says that “the B.C. legislation arose out of a number of similar cases, but (cases) involving seniors, where people were being abused, and part of that abuse involved placement in inappropriate living conditions.”
Presumably this legislation is intended to protect all seniors from such abuse, including abuse by health care facility staff – or is it? Prof. Gordon should know. He has had a significant hand in designing the laws in British Columbia and across Canada that define the roles and responsibilities of the Public Guardian offices, health authorities and police in dealing with protection of vulnerable seniors and disabled people, and he is still actively engaged in this lawmaking process. He is recently quoted in the Vancouver Sun saying, “I was one of the drafters of the provincial health care consent and related legislation (including adult guardianship) that came into force in February 2000.”
And, in his interview on CBC Radio’s The Current, Prof. Gordon tells host Anna Maria Tremonti, “… The RCMP and the municipal police departments were part of the process for developing protocols that would ensure that people did not fall through the gaps.” Falling through the gaps is putting it mildly.
Reality: Police and health authorities stonewall criminal investigations
Although Prof. Gordon maintains that, under the legislation he helped write, B.C. police and public agencies have a responsibility to ensure vulnerable people are protected and are “duty bound to investigate” – the reality is that he knows that’s not happening.
Professor Gordon is personally familiar with one B.C. case in particular, a case where police, health authorities and public agencies refused to investigate a serious alleged crime, and failed to take actions to protect the elderly victim from serious harm and death. In March 2011, the daughter of Kathleen Palamarek and two registered nurses co-signed and faxed an urgent letter to the Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) alerting them to their concerns that Mrs. Palamarek’s life was in danger at The Lodge at Broadmead, the nursing home where she lived in Saanich, a suburb of Victoria, B.C. The health authority responded five weeks later saying they were “obligated to follow up directly with a resident’s legal representative”, Ralph Palamarek, and with the nursing home, Broadmead Lodge. However, VIHA did not speak with or contact either Mrs. Palamarek’s daughter or either of the two Registered Nurses who co-signed the letter asking for a meeting on an urgent basis, nor did they conduct an investigation or ask to see Mrs. Palamarek herself – contrary to what Prof. Gordon would have us believe is standard practice in B.C.
The woman’s daughter and son-in-law and one of the nurses who signed the above letter had earlier sought help from the Saanich Police Department in February 2011 after they discovered that the nursing home, Broadmead Lodge, had begun to administer lethal doses of morphine to Mrs. Palamarek (who had neither intractable pain nor terminal illness). Her life was saved when her daughter called 9-1-1 and paramedics revived Mrs. Palamarek on route to Emergency.
A few weeks after the police investigation into this alleged attempted murder began, Mrs. Palamarek’s daughter and her colleagues (including the registered nurses) received a letter from the nursing home’s lawyer severely restricting their visits with Mrs. Palamarek, and were told they could only visit Kathleen Palamarek with a security guard present at all times.
Shortly thereafter, a blatant conflict of interest came to light involving the police, the nursing home and the nursing home’s lawyer. The family discovered that the police officer investigating the alleged attempted murder of Kathleen Palamarek at Broadmead Lodge, Constable Kathleen Murphy, had recently been found guilty in B.C. Supreme Court in an unrelated matter, the shooting death of an unarmed Victoria man. The judge harshly criticized Cst. Murphy for being untruthful.
Defending Cst. Kathleen Murphy was lawyer Harold Rusk of Jones Emery Hargreaves Swan – the same lawyer who wrote the letter on behalf of Broadmead Lodge, restricting the daughter and nurses from visiting Kathleen Palamarek a few weeks after they reported the morphine overdose to police!
On April 30, 2011 Mrs. Palamarek’s daughter and son-in-law and the nurse – all of whom had witnessed the administration of morphine two months earlier – sent a letter reporting this astounding conflict of interest between the police and the nursing home under investigation to the Chief of Police and to the Chair of the Saanich Police Board, Saanich mayor Frank Leonard. The Saanich Police investigated their own conduct, and maintained that there was no conflict of interest or wrong-doing by their own police officers or by the lawyer who represented both Cst. Murphy and the nursing home she was investigating, Broadmead Lodge. Saanich Police also decided that they would “retain conduct of the investigation” into the attempted murder of Kathleen Palamarek, rather than turn it over to another police force. Kathleen Palamarek died a few days later, on May 4, 2011.
Professor Robert Gordon is familiar with this case. In November 2008 journalist Rob Wipond discussed some of the circumstances with him, and he agreed to review a letter written by authorities to Mrs. Palamarek’s daughter, and to comment on the relevant points of law for an article Mr. Wipond was writing about B.C.’s Mental Health Act being increasingly used by authorities to inappropriately apprehend seniors. Mr. Wipond clarified with Prof. Gordon that all he wanted was a comment on the point of law, and not the merits of the case. However, when provided with a copy of the letter by the daughter (who had authorized Prof. Gordon to read and provide comments on the letter to Mr. Wipond), Prof. Gordon refused.
In our effort to strengthen the protection of vulnerable Canadians, Seniors at Risk will continue to expose and dispel the myths perpetrated by lawmakers such as Prof. Robert Gordon.
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