Felony rates for home care providers alarming

November 8, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
A settlement has been reached in the case of a 92-year-old woman who fell victim to financial elder abuse. That lawsuit has brought attention to the home care provider industry, part of which is not regulated in California.

An alarming number of senior care providers in people's homes have felony convictions. But what's just as troubling is a 7 On Your Side investigation that found a simple safeguard approved by the Legislature is being ignored by the state.

Two years ago, 92-year-old Rose Michael's family says she was swindled out of at least $30,000 by a caretaker hired through a home care agency.

"I guess I didn't realize it until it was too late," said Rose.

Wessa Tanubo pled guilty in 2009 to felony financial abuse after being accused of signing checks to herself and making fraudulent purchases on Rose's credit cards.

"It was the better part of a year when we started realizing that some things were not right," said Patrick Michael, Rose's son.

The family would later learn the caretaker had been convicted on drug charges in 1994. She was paroled the following year, but bounced in and out of prison from 2000 to 2004 on various parole violations. Then in 2008, the San Mateo County Superior Court issued a restraining order to keep Tanubo away from her own child. The company, Home Care Assistance, then placed Tanubo into Rose's home.

"We trusted the agency that they had said they did national and criminal background checks and local criminal background checks and that they were placing the best people in my mother's home," said Rosalie Gonsolin, Rose's daughter.

But the background check HCA conducted failed to turn up Tanubo's criminal history. The family sued HCA for elder abuse, for falsely advertising it conducted thorough background checks. Both parties recently reached a confidential settlement in the case. HCA says it is now conducting criminal background checks with the Department of Justice on all of its caretakers.

"The industry and the state of California, neither of them have regulated this at all. We really decided on our own accord as we continued to grow and open additional locations, that we wanted to put more of these checks in place," said Lily Sarafan, chief operating officer of HCA.

"This case is important because it will send a message to not only Home Care Assistance, but to all the in-home care provider agencies that they cannot place just anybody in elders' homes. Elders are vulnerable, elders are trusting," said Liza de Vries, Rose's attorney.

What happened to Rose is sadly not an isolated incident. Background checks conducted by the state under a new law passed last year have found nearly 1,000 convicted felons working or seeking jobs as caretakers for seniors and disabled in California.

But the law only mandates background checks for Californians poor enough to qualify for in-home family assistance or rich enough to afford caretakers also qualified to provide medical care. Rose is part of a large middle class paying for her own care out of pocket and currently unprotected by the new law.

"Anybody can go out and call themselves a home care worker, put an ad in the paper, and they're not required to have a criminal background check," said Pat McGinnis, the executive director from California Advocates for Nursing Home Reforms.

McGinnis points to a murder in Pleasant Hill just this past June. Prosecutors say Mary Jane Scanlon used Craigslist to hire the caregiver that later killed her.

Diane Warrick, 56, is accused of stabbing Scanlon to death. Warrick was convicted of attempted murder in 1999 following an incident at Napa State Hospital, but a jury later found her not guilty by reason of insanity.

"I guess we feel a little let down by the state. We feel maybe if the state had a little more regulation, some of these things wouldn't happen," said Patrick.

In 2008, the Legislature passed a law that provides at least some protection, but little is done to enforce it. The law gives the state's public assistance program, In-Home Support Services, the authority, but not the mandate to conduct background checks for all seniors and disabled looking to hire caretakers.

7 On Your side called the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin. Only San Mateo County offered to do a background check. The other counties said they couldn't do background checks unless the caretaker was already registered in their system.

"We pay legislators to enact legislation that would protect the public like this, and then nothing happens? It just sits there on the books? What's the point?" said McGinnis.

The California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform blames the Department of Social Services for not implementing the law. However, the Department of Social Services told 7 On Your side it doesn't think it has the authority to do that. It declined our request for an on-camera interview.


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