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News 8 investigation prompts lawmaker to seek tighter controls on criminal caretakers

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

DALLAS -- A state lawmaker is calling for tighter controls on nursing home aides after a News 8 investigation revealed that the state has certified hundreds of them with serious criminal histories.

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, who sits on the Texas Legislature's Public Health Committee, said he wants a thorough FBI background check done before nurse aides are certified.

“If we do the FBI background investigation,” Rep. Zedler told News 8, “Health and Human Services, which handles the certification for nurse aides, would get a monthly print out – ‘Here are the people that violated the law.’”

A News 8 investigation revealed that state health officials are only required to do a less-thorough state background check when initially certifying aides, and no new checks for re-certification.

Watch our "Criminal Caretakers" investigation (Part 1 and Part 2)

“Y'all perform a very important service because a lot of times, you don't know you have a problem until somebody brings it to your attention,” Rep. Zedler said.

A WFAA analysis of government data showed that abuse in Texas nursing homes is nearly four times the national average, and a broken system is largely to blame. Our six-month long investigation uncovered how violent criminals are often left to care for some of our most vulnerable.

After our stories aired last month, Emily Bailey said they sounded all too familiar to her.

“I hate how the elderly are treated,” said Bailey, a certified nurse aide. “I hate how the workers are treated.

“I would never put my own grandmother in a nursing home because of the stuff I've seen,” she said. “Nobody ever really talks about, from an aides point of view, what's really going on in most of these facilities.”

She said not only are nurse aides with a history of abuse often left to care for the elderly, but bad behavior often is ignored.

“You knew they were doing drugs,” she said. “You knew that they were drinking. But sometimes these facilities just swept it under the rug because they came, not sober, but were still able to do their job.”

Our investigation found that nurse aides like James Pruitt are flying under the state’s radar. On the state’s nurse aide registry, his certificate is clean, meaning he’s eligible to work in a nursing home.

But by state law, he shouldn’t be.

Court records show Pruitt was convicted of assault last year after he choked and pushed his girlfriend down a stairwell.

But state regulators don't know that, because no one is doing routine background checks.

Right now in Texas, nurse aide applicants get a one-time background check through the Texas Department of Public Safety as part of the initial certification process. Zedler said an FBI background check would not only be more thorough, but it would catch nurse aides like Pruitt who rack up convictions long after they're first certified.

Former nursing home administrator Susan Hodges said nursing homes would have a hard time hiring people if controls are tightened.

She said she’s not opposed to stricter controls, but notes that the state set the bar low for a reason.

“I do not believe that you can have an employee pool to pull from except that group of people that, for some reason …. can't get a better job,” Hodges said. “So that's the type of people you're really going to get in this type of situation.”

That’s because the job is tough and dirty, Bailey said.

“We're overworked,” she said. “We are stressed out mentally.”

“You're basically a certified butt cleaner,” she added. “You clean up poop, you clean up pee day in and day out.”

And the pay?

“I'm sorry, but it's crap -- between $8.50 up to $10 dollars an hour,” she said. “I would rather work at McDonald’s instead of work as a CNA ever again.”

It all adds up to a job few qualified workers are willing to do, and an industry that hires criminals in order to keep their businesses running.

“The state may have to end up putting more money into the program,” Zedler said.

Zedler said that if he can’t get reform of the nurse aide program done through regulatory changes, he told News 8 he will file new legislation next session.

Email investigates@wfaa.com

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