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Criminal Caretakers: Hundreds of certified aides with criminal histories working in nursing homes

Loopholes allow many to work legally; others - due to lax oversight – should be ineligible but remain certified and employable

Charlotte Huffman, Mark Smith

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Published: 11/16/2017 2:24:52 PM
Updated: 9:14 PM CDT June 28, 2018

Part 2 (See Parts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 of our continuing investigation of nursing home abuse and neglect.)

A six-month WFAA investigation found nearly 200 aides certified to work in North Texas nursing homes have serious or violent criminal histories.

Maybe most troubling, WFAA found that many certified nurse aides (CNAs) with criminal histories work in nursing homes legally.

But WFAA also found other CNAs who have been convicted of crimes that should make them ineligible to work, yet slipped through the regulatory cracks -- and continue to remain state certified and employable.

The WFAA review found CNAs with arrests for crimes that include the following: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; continuous violence against family; injury to a child; abandoning a child; aggravated robbery; aggravated sexual contact with a child; and burglary.

The WFAA analysis also, in a review of federal complaints, found Texas nursing homes with an abuse rate four times the national average.

For advocates of the elderly, it’s disturbing.

“It's not okay,” said Cortney Nicolato, chief executive officer of the Senior Source, a Dallas nonprofit that conducted nearly 5,000 nursing home visits last year to ensure residents were free from signs of abuse. “Organizations like ours bust our chops every day to make sure that older adults are being protected. We need the entire community doing the same.”

So, why is that not happening on behalf of the state’s 92,000 nursing home patients?

Because there are three major oversight flaws, according to the WFAA findings.

Loophole 1: Inadequate initial background checks

The first involves the initial certification.

The state requires DPS to conduct a criminal background check prior to an applicant being certified. That’s different from Texas requirements in other industries, for example, like child daycare in which a national background check using fingerprints is required.

The WFAA review found the DPS checks apparently fail to uncover various state convictions. That’s resulted in nurse aide applicants getting certified, though they should be barred for life.

Like Tiffany Simons, Daniel Badger and Johnny Lacy.

All three were convicted of crimes that should have prohibited them life from becoming CNAs.

Yet, they went to prison, got out, and then became certified.

None would talk to us on camera.

Loophole 2: No background check on re-certification

A second flaw appears in the re-certification process. The state requires a nurse aide to get re-certified every two years, yet does not require regulators to re-check a CNA’s criminal background.

Instead, any further background checks fall to the nursing homes.

WFAA found individuals who commit crimes that should bar them from work – and have their certification pulled - yet remain certified and employable.

CNAs like Corwin Harrison, for example, gained his certification from the state in 2003. But after initially being certified, he was later convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for attacking his girlfriend with a large kitchen knife and trying to choke her, according to court and prison records.

The conviction for the crime should have barred Harrison - like other CNAs we found – for life from working as a CNA.

Although Harrison spent a year-and- a-half in prison, in 2012 and 2013, he got out and worked as a nurse aide from 2014 to 2016, state employment records. He even renewed his certificate in 2016.

Harrison backed out of an interview request, but told us he continues to work as a nurse aide – though in private care. He acknowledged having a criminal past – though did not discuss his specific crimes. He said any prior criminal past does not necessarily affect one’s work.

Loophole 3: Deferred adjudication probation

The third and most common loophole WFAA found is buried in the state's regulations. It says if you commit a serious or violent crime, you are eligible to become a CNA as long as you don’t have a “final conviction.”

That means a nurse aide can commit a serious or violent crime, gain deferred adjudication, and successfully fulfill the terms of their probation, to avoid a “final conviction.” The individual, though often pleading guilty to a serious or violent crime to gain probation, remains eligible to be a CNA.

We found dozens of nurse aides who pleaded guilty to violent crimes. But since they got probation, the law allows them to go back to work.

Tambra Wright is one of them. She pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for trying to run someone over with her car.

“I don’t have any convictions of any felonies,” she told WFAA as she was about to clock in at her job at a local nursing home this month.

That’s true. She got deferred adjudication and granted eight years of probation.

In all, we found nearly 200 nurse aides whose records on the state’s nurse aide registry are clean, but who have criminal histories for violent or serious offenses.

Many are, right now, working at the bedsides of vulnerable Texas nursing home residents.

“They have dementia, Alzheimer's, symptoms that cause them to have a lack of communication,” said Ernest Tosh, an attorney who handles nursing home abuse cases across the United States.

“They can't express exactly what happened, which is why violent offenders should be screened out from working in these facilities,” Tosh said. “They can physically or sexually assault an individual and there be no repercussions because that individual can't identify them or communicate what happened.”

But others says there’s a reason nursing homes hire criminals. Susan Hodges would know. She’s a former nursing home administrator.

“It's very demanding and very tough,” Hodges said. “I've seen the aides get hit in the stomach. I've seen them get bit … I've seen them take a lot of punishment. A lot more than you realize.”

At minimum wage, barely above $7 an hour, a nurse aide is often left to clean, bathe and feed as many as 30 residents at a time. That’s compounded by Texas’ lack of minimum staffing level requirements.

A nurse aide could flip burgers and make more money, Hodges said. This all adds up to a job few are willing to do, and an industry that sets the bar low in order to keep facilities staffed and profitable, experts like Hodges told WFAA.

WFAA asked Hodges what would happen if the state cracked down and actually barred criminals from working in nursing homes.

“It would be a huge hit because they would have to go to find another pool of employees,” Hodges said. “I would say at least a fourth of their staff would be gone.”

But others disagree.

“I think our state needs to recognize that nursing homes are not as poor as they claim to be,” said J.T. Borah, an Austin attorney show specializes in nursing home abuse and neglect. “If the industry were to finance and staff at the level they were supposed to, they could afford better employees. They could have better applicants.”

Families of nursing home victims agreed with Borah. Liz Harris has alleged her sister was sexually assaulted in a nursing home by a man with past arrests.

“That’s not right,” Harris said. “I'm really appalled at that right now. And the more I think about it, I'm angry. … What if it were their family members?”

“You guys (nursing homes) should know better,” Liz Harris added. “You're in the business of taking care of people and that's what you really should be doing.”

WFAA asked the Texas Department of Health and Human Services for an on-camera interview so that we could show them the list of criminal nurse aides we’ve uncovered. They declined that opportunity but expressed an interest in reviewing the names WFAA found.

In 2018, lawmakers will take on nursing home reform as one of the Texas legislature’s interim charges to improve the quality of care for nursing home and assisted living facility residents. The Senior Source has issued their recommendations, which include “requiring annual background checks, at a minimum, for ANYONE working in long-term care facilities.”

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