Following Tribune reports of violent attacks by felons living in nursing homes, some facilities are scrambling to comply with a 4-year-old disclosure law requiring them to notify state public health officials when they admit offenders, state officials say.
As a result, the number of felons reported to be living in the facilities increased last month, according to state records and interviews. Illinois nursing homes disclosed that they held 3,326 offenders as of Dec. 10, up from 3,224 on Nov. 5.
"If they have not been reporting individuals in the past, they've begun reporting them," said Richard Dees, chief of the state Department of Public Health's Bureau of Long-Term Care.
Statewide, the rate at which facilities reported new felons has doubled from about 50 a month to 100 last month.
Since 2006, Illinois has required nursing facilities to conduct criminal background checks on all new residents and immediately notify state health authorities when they admit anyone with a serious felony conviction. But some homes failed to conduct the background checks within the required time period, made serious errors on the checks, or simply failed to report felons to public health officials, the Tribune found in an October investigation. Some of these offenders went on to commit assaults and other serious crimes inside the homes.
On Friday, for example, a 22-year-old mentally ill felon pleaded guilty to the brutal January rape of a 69-year-old woman who lived in the same Elgin nursing home. Christopher Shelton's background screening had been improperly handled by Elgin's Maplewood Care nursing home because they used the wrong birth date, records show. Shelton will serve 12 years under his plea agreement.
The surprising number of offenders in Illinois nursing facilities stems from a decades-old policy that shuttered state-run psychiatric hospitals while offering little housing and community-based treatment to the discharged patients. Many, including thousands with criminal records, wound up in nursing homes that were ill-equipped to monitor and treat them, according to government reports and interviews with officials and advocates.
The felons currently housed in Illinois nursing facilities include 196 sex offenders, state records show.
The largest jump in reported felons occurred at Wincrest Nursing Center, a 70-bed facility nestled amid student dormitories near the Loyola University Chicago campus in Edgewater. The number of felons reportedly living at Wincrest more than doubled to 30 in December from 12 the previous month, state records show.
Facility administrator Narad Persadsingh acknowledged that his staff knew about the criminal backgrounds of the 18 newly disclosed felons but simply failed to notify the state as required by law. "I just missed it," Persadsingh said.
He said state health authorities are not taking punitive action because the facility is now in compliance with state law. Federal health care inspectors recently gave Wincrest a four-out-of-five-star, "above average" rating for overall quality.
State Rep. Harry Osterman, whose district encompasses the facility, said he repeatedly has asked Wincrest how many felons live there but "to date they have not given that to us." Told the number by reporters, Osterman said: "I'm astonished. That highlights the public safety concerns that we've seen in the past."
Neighbors' complaints to Osterman's office have included accusations that Wincrest residents have purchased drugs, committed burglaries and harassed students. An April 2009 state health department report said Wincrest residents "purchase and smoke marijuana and consume alcohol while off the premises of the facility," and added that one resident allegedly had walked into a nearby dorm and smeared feces on the walls. There are seven Loyola residence halls with about 600 students within a block of Wincrest, and female students have reported catcalls and harassment, university officials said.
Persadsingh told the Tribune that, by law, Wincrest can put few restrictions on its residents, who suffer from psychiatric and substance abuse problems. "These are mentally ill people and we don't lock them in like animals," he said. He added that neighborhood complaints are exaggerated and stem from Loyola's desire to take over the property. "They want this place," Persadsingh said. "They want to gentrify the area."
Loyola officials said they are not against having a psychiatric facility in their midst, but they question whether Wincrest is properly treating and supervising its residents. "I wouldn't want my daughter to walk by there at 12 at night," said Loyola Interim Director of Campus Safety Robert Fine.
The state health department's Division of Patient Safety and Quality has only two employees dedicated solely to collecting reports of felons, tracking the offenders and initiating the state's risk assessments, which are used to identify high-risk individuals who should live in private rooms and be closely monitored.
"We are short-staffed," state health department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.
Gov. Pat Quinn's new Nursing Home Safety Task Force, formed in response to Tribune reports, is considering ways to strengthen and speed the background checks and risk assessments as part of a broader overhaul designed to protect vulnerable residents and improve the care of the mentally ill.
"We're glad that the spotlight that is being directed toward this issue is contributing to a serious effort on the part of the nursing home providers and the department to follow our existing rules that will better help us segregate people who need a different sort of setting for their care," task force chairman Michael Gelder said in an interview.
An increase in felons also was reported at Sharon Healthcare Pines in Peoria, which disclosed 18 offenders this month, up from 11 in November.
While one of those seven newly reported felons was admitted to Sharon Pines in recent weeks, the criminal backgrounds of the other six had been known to the facility for months -- but not disclosed to health authorities as required, records and interviews show.
Among them was a 45-year-old convicted burglar and drug user with a major psychiatric disorder. A second, a 49-year-old with numerous convictions and a mood disorder, had been living in the home unreported for almost a year, according to his confidential state risk assessment report.
It was "an unfortunate clerical error," said Arnold Kanter, a facility spokesman. "What is more significant than the number of felons is the monitoring and treatment they receive," he added.
Federal health care inspectors recently gave a five-star, "well above average" rating for overall quality to Sharon Pines, which specializes in younger adults with psychiatric illness and severe medical conditions. There have been 11 police reports of alleged violence at the facility since January 2008.
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