RI Veterans Home leadership confronts persistent problem of theft
By BRIAN AMARAL | The Providence Journal, R.I. | Published: June 28, 2019
BRISTOL, R.I. (Tribune News Service) — Seventy-five years ago, a young Army soldier from Rhode Island named Leo Heroux was part of the massive invasion of Normandy that freed Europe from the grip of Nazism.
In recognition of his role on D-Day, Heroux received France's highest honor in July 2017. After he moved into the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, a state-run nursing home for aging veterans, he kept his Legion d'Honneur in the drawer next to his bed.
Within months, the medal was gone.
Heroux, who turns 96 this year, immediately suspected someone stole it. The staff, even the top official at the Veterans Home, a retired general, searched everywhere. They never found it.
"I wish I could find that medal of honor," Heroux said at a meeting of residents at the home in May, organized to discuss the issue of thefts there.
Heroux's missing medal is just one example — albeit among the most galling — of an item that residents have lost, possibly due to theft, at the Rhode Island Veterans Home.
A wedding band, a debit card, a jar, a potted plant, body spray, knee-high socks, a teddy bear, cash in ones, fives, 10s and 20s. It happens with enough regularity that the Veterans Home has a standard form for it: "Larceny, theft complaint report." According to documents obtained under public records requests by The Providence Journal, eight such complaints have been filed between November and May, about one a month.
Some residents say that likely undercounts the true toll, because veterans might be reluctant to report the crimes.
The people who run the Veterans Home say they monitor security closely and encourage residents to come forward to report any possible thefts, which, because the home is state property, get reported to the Rhode Island State Police. Each resident has locked drawers for their valuables.
And, they say, the Veterans Home is experiencing issues that every other nursing home does — an assertion that nursing home experts say is true, even if it's not reassuring about the way society treats the elderly.
"Is it a concern? Yes," said Rick Baccus, director of the home, during a recent two-hour tour arranged to show The Journal how the home addresses thefts. "Is it something we look at on a daily basis? Yes. We do everything we possibly can to support that."
"Is it a crisis?" added Kasim Yarn, the state's director of Veterans Affairs, who also accompanied the tour. "No."
Crisis or not, the thefts are happening, and one need look no further than the arrests of people working there: Since 2016, two nursing assistants employed by outside staffing agencies have admitted to stealing from veterans at the home. One eventually admitted the theft after police confronted her with records from a pawn shop where she hawked the rings she'd slipped off a dementia patient's hands while washing them. One of those rings was the ailing veteran's wedding band. She got $125 for them.
Another pleaded no contest just this May after she was charged with brazenly pilfering a veteran's wallet from his wheelchair as he watched her, then using his credit card at a nearby Stop & Shop.
In the case of Heroux's missing medal, nobody was arrested. And yet Heroux and his family are glad he's at the Veterans Home, a place where he's well cared for and happy.
"I think we ought to be proud of what we've done in Rhode Island" for aging veterans, said Ron Heroux, Leo's nephew.
Others take a dimmer view.
Richard Moniz, the president of the home's council of residents, said some people may be concerned about "retribution" if they speak out. In 2007, the home was roiled by controversy after an outspoken resident said he was subjected to numerous psychological evaluations in a sickening episode of retaliation. (Baccus, who was not the director at the time, acknowledged that the retaliation complaint in that case was legitimate but said the people who caused the problem are no longer there.)
"When you talk about a theft here, you're talking about a theft in our personal home," Moniz said in an interview. "Most of these guys have given up a lot. It's a beautiful place, it's nice to have a private room and a private bathroom. That's a great improvement. But if somebody steals from you, that's your personal issue, and anybody that's had someone break into their house and steal, they know how it feels."
The state Department of Health makes nursing homes report incidents of theft to the state. Those "misappropriation" reports are not considered public records after they're submitted, a spokesman for the department said. But because the Veterans Home is a public entity, its own internal documents are indeed public records. Reviewing years of those documents provides a glimpse into a problem that experts say is occurring at most or all of Rhode Island's nursing homes.
That raises a question: If the Veterans Home is taking its responsibilities seriously and caring for its residents, what's happening at the places that don't?
"We see bad things happening at good places," said David V. Dufour Jr., a Kentucky-based attorney at Morgan & Morgan who makes a living suing nursing homes. "We see way more bad things happen at bad places."
The Rhode Island Veterans Home opened in 1891, to serve veterans of the Civil War. Early residents received pensions of $8 per month and lived on old farmland in Bristol.
Much has changed in the last 130-odd years, but never so much as when the entire facility was rebuilt from the ground up.
The joint state-federal project cost $120 million, and finished in late 2017. In the new facility, each resident has his or her own room. Before, they bunked up two to a room, leading to disputes, the leaders now joke, when Navy guys didn't want to live with Army guys. Now, the complex of buildings looks like something that could just as easily be marketed to young urban professionals.
But everyone who lives here is a Rhode Islander who served in the military during wartime. They pay 80% of their net income to live here. The population, just shy of 200, is divided roughly evenly by a third among Vietnam, Korea and World War II veterans.
On a recent tour, Baccus, the home's director, and Yarn, the state's veterans affairs director, gave the home the highest seal of approval: They'd like to live at the Rhode Island Veterans Home one day, too.
"These are America's heroes," said Yarn, a veteran of the Navy. "What message are we sending as a state? Our message is, we care for our veterans."
Baccus, too, is eligible: A retired Army general who served with the Rhode Island National Guard, he had a tenure in the military that tested his resolve and integrity. He was in charge of the military police and oversaw detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the first combatants in post-9/11 conflicts were held.
He was removed from that post in 2002. Baccus now says he was forced out because he raised issues about military police being involved in interrogations, when that wasn't their role. That was exactly the same problem that came up at Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison in Iraq, he said. He was also accused, falsely, he says, of "coddling" detainees.
Mike Jolin, a spokesman for the agency who is also a former civil litigator in the state attorney general's office and a current major in the Rhode Island National Guard, said of Baccus: "He knows what right looks like."
Kathleen Heren, the ombudsman for long-term care in Rhode Island, has an admiring but unprintable nickname for Baccus that refers to his upright bearing and his rectitude.
Baccus runs a tight ship, Heren said.
"The general is good to those people," Heren said, referring to Baccus by his former military rank, as many still do. "I know he is. I know he's in there day and night, on the weekends. Believe me when I tell you, and I've been doing this job for 22 years, if there was something, I'd say something. I have no friends in this industry."
The troubles began weeks after Cynthia Owens' father, a World War II veteran, moved into the Rhode Island Veterans Home. Members of the nighttime nursing staff were peering into his room, she said, then quickly leaving when he asked what they were doing.
"He suspected that staff was waiting for him to fall asleep to go through his belongings and steal from him," Owens said in an email.
Those fears came true, she said, when he woke up one morning to find that cash and a credit card had been taken from his wallet under his pillow.
Owens is unusually capable of addressing these sorts of issues: She is an attorney who practices pro bono legal matters on behalf of veterans. She began issuing public records requests about the thefts and letters to various state officials, as well as the media.
"The Veterans' Home is a state residential and nursing facility for war veterans, many of whom are combat veterans, who served to protect our ideals of liberty and justice," Owens, who lives in Virginia, told The Journal in an email. "The time is long overdue for the administration at the Veterans' Home to employ adequate means to safeguard the well-being of our treasured veterans in fulfillment of their legal entitlements and in gratitude of their courageous service."
Owens also requested records about abuse of veterans, and found other disturbing episodes, like a CNA — a certified nursing assistant — who was pushing a resident's wheelchair into position for Veterans Day ceremonies and told him he could sit anywhere, since he was blind.
In a more recent incident, earlier this year, a nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Providence was so "horrified" by the way that a CNA had treated a Veterans Home resident that she requested the CNA never bring him to the hospital again.
"Shame on you for urinating on yourself," the CNA told the veteran.
(Baccus, in an interview, said they take such matters seriously; the longtime CNA who made the comment about the blind resident was counseled and received training on abuse, he said. The CNA who belittled the veteran at the VA was working via a contract agency and is no longer at the home, according to the state.)
Owens believes letting the veterans install security cameras in their rooms would help address the issues, which has led to formal letters back and forth from Owens and the home: The home told Owens it won't install the cameras, in part due to privacy concerns.
Baccus, said in an interview that he probably couldn't stop veterans from installing cameras on their own, but would want to make sure that's what the veteran actually wanted.
Said state Veterans Affairs director Yarn: "This is not a prison. This is your home. Do you have cameras in your bedroom?"
State Rep. Mike Chippendale, Republican of Foster, was among the people Owens has contacted in her quest to address the issues at the Veterans Home.
Chippendale visited the facility earlier this year with state Rep. Susan Donovan, a Democrat representing Bristol.
"It's a problem everywhere in nursing homes," said Donovan, whose grandfather also lived at the home before it was rebuilt and had a handmade afghan taken from his bed. "It's very sad, but it's easy to prey on people who live in nursing homes."
Chippendale said when he first reviewed the records, he expected to find major issues at the Veterans Home. But he came away from his visit reassured that the home's leadership took their responsibilities seriously.
"I'm a guy who likes to find fault," Chippendale said. "I couldn't find fault."
Those who have studied thefts in nursing homes call it the "hidden problem."
Michael Benson, a University of Cincinnati professor, coauthored a study with that title two decades ago looking into the causes and prevalence of thefts.
"From a criminological point of view, it's nothing to be surprised about," Benson said in an interview. "You have vulnerable victims in unguarded spaces that they can't protect themselves in. If they insist on having their jewelry and having it out, and you have people with low wages in difficult working conditions — you have motivated offenders — it's not surprising that a certain amount of theft occurs."
But it's not just staffers that residents have to worry about. Fellow residents might also be stealing from each other — in the survey, nursing staffers were more likely to say they saw residents stealing than other staffers. And families, too, are not above suspicion.
In fact, said Heren, the state's long-term-care watchdog, the bigger issue for elderly people is when their own families rip them off, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's a sickness that goes on," Heren said.
The dollar amounts might be smaller when it comes to nursing-home theft — the $125 at a pawn shop for a dementia patient's wedding ring, for instance — but when it happens at the Veterans Home, the state police comes to investigate the state property.
"Unfortunately, any population of our community that's in a facility like that, they're vulnerable," said Maj. Timothy Sanzi, the detective commander of the Rhode Island State Police. "It's imperative that caretakers and families responsible for people living in these homes have positive communication with them."
Molly Kapstein Cote is the state's prosecutor for crimes against elderly people. With phone and internet scams, financial abuse and even larcenies, it's a big portfolio.
"By the nature of where they are in life, and their medical status, they have to rely on other people," Kapstein Cote said. "And we just can't tolerate these people being taken advantage of. They are supposed to be at a point in their lives where they're retired, they've saved and planned for retirement, and need to be able to rely on that. It's just particularly offensive that these people are being taken advantage of at that point in their life."
The larcenies are only a small portion of what she deals with, but Kapstein Cote was interviewed a few hours after a plea in one of her cases from Amanda Lachapelle, a CNA working at the Veterans Home from an outside staffing agency.
Lachapelle admitted in May to a charge of larceny from someone 65 or older, and was given a suspended sentence with probation, per court records. According to a police report, she took a veteran's wallet out of his wheelchair while working there late in 2017. She then made several purchases with the victim's credit card at Stop & Shop, the records show.
Her lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Dianne Sherrod-Aluko, another nursing assistant, was charged in 2015 with slipping rings off a veteran's fingers while washing his hands, including his wedding band. When police originally interviewed her, she said she didn't know anything about the missing rings. Then police confronted her with evidence that she'd pawned rings matching their description. Her story soon changed: She said she'd found them in the activity room.
She told police it didn't occur to her that the rings were the same ones everyone had been looking for.
"She refused to speak further," the report says.
In 2016, Sherrod-Aluko pleaded no contest to larceny from a person 65 years or older and was given probation, court records show.
According to the Veterans Home, both were working there from temporary agencies due to low staffing levels, a situation the state says it is working to address. Sherrod-Aluko had a previous arrest for welfare fraud, according to police and court records.
Baccus, the home's director, said the state is working on reducing the number of certified nursing assistants working there as contractors. He acknowledged that it is one of the top complaints at the Veterans Home, but said it goes beyond the issue of thefts and reaches the sensitive nature of the work they do at people's most vulnerable moments. Most of them do it with great care for the veterans, Baccus said.
"If you were in a wheelchair and you needed help just to go to the bathroom, you would be much more receptive to having the same person do it for you, or at least being familiar with two or three people," Baccus said.
The contract staffers are not part of Council 94, the union representing full-time CNAs there, according to union president Michael Downey. Downey said the union has for years urged the home to rely less on the contract staffers, who, he believes, the state has less control over.
"I do stand with the relationship we have formed with the veterans," Downey said. "We've really had a good relationship with the veterans we serve at the Veterans Home."
On a recent Thursday, Leo Heroux was waiting by the front door of the Veterans Home for the media, and then a ride. It was June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that Heroux took part in.
He doesn't like to talk much about that harrowing day, but he is part of a dwindling population of living Normandy veterans, so people ask, and Heroux will oblige. A TV news crew showed up to ask him questions. Afterward, as Heroux and his nephew chatted with another reporter, Baccus spotted him from across the home's grand foyer, and came up to wish him well before a wreath-laying ceremony.
Close observers would also notice something else about the man of the hour: The gleaming medal pinned to his blazer. Ron Heroux, his nephew, had secured him a new one from France.
Leo Heroux said with a chuckle that he won't be keeping the new one in his room anymore. But Heroux himself, whose role in saving the world earned him a spot at the home and the medal itself, will be staying.
"Other than that incident happening, he's very happy there," said his nephew, Ron Heroux. "He feels home. He's found a place."
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