What is hard to find is any information about the allegations that don’t turn into lawsuits. Even determining bottom-line figures can be challenging.
In June, SFR filed a public records request with the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department for all reports of “elder abuse, neglect, and/or exploitation” for 2008-2010, as well as “all documentation” for investigations of these reports.
SFR’s request was denied under a statute governing Adult Protective Services, a division of ALTSD, which declares all records related to abuse, neglect and exploitation confidential, and forbids employees from disclosing them “directly or indirectly to the public.”
In July, ALTSD did provide statistical information to SFR in response to a revised public records request. SFR asked for the number of reports of elder abuse—and the disposition of those reports—for the same time period.
For 2010, through June 30, ALTSD stated that it had received 195 complaints of elder abuse, neglect and/or exploitation for Santa Fe County alone. According to the information provided, 125 were deemed worthy of investigation.
However, a spokeswoman for the department, on Aug. 30—as SFR went to press—told SFR the figures the department had provided in July did not solely represent reports of abuse against the elderly—but were for all people ages 18 and older.
When SFR requested statistics that responded to the original request, ALTSD Director of Policy and Planning Emily Kaltenbach provided figures via email for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010. Those figures state the department received 224 reports of alleged abuse against people 65 years and older, and accepted 150 for investigation.
Of those 150, 18 were substantiated. SFR then asked for the disposition of the remaining 132 cases, and did not receive a response by press time. (Editor's note: After SFR's press deadline, ALTSD provided information that that of the 132 cases, 126 were found to be unsubstantiated, and six are pending.)
SFR is in the process of refiling the request for information about elder abuse cases in Santa Fe County between 2008 and 2010.
Had Kaltenbach not alerted SFR that the original figures were not just for the elderly, there would have been no way of knowing this was the case because no other documentation is made publicly available.
According to New Mexico Foundation for Open Government Executive Director Sarah Welsh, the APS confidentiality law is one of the strictest she’s seen—and raises the question of oversight.
“Whenever there’s confidential records, you sacrifice oversight,” Welsh says. “There’s a Court of Appeals decision last year that said open government is intended to protect the public from having to trust what their officials tell them—which is exactly what you have to do in a situation like this. How are you supposed to know?”
Court records are one way to penetrate the state’s disclosure rules regarding elder abuse.
SFR checked First Judicial District court records and found 40 cases filed against four nursing home providers in Santa Fe County alone since 2007.
According to the federal Administration on Aging, when it comes to nursing home complaints, New Mexico ranks near the top in several categories, from the number of general complaints per facility bed to the percentage of complaints related to abuse.
Dusti Harvey, an Albuquerque-based lawyer who specializes in such cases, says neglect is one of the more common allegations.
“Call lights are going unanswered, and people can only wait to go to the bathroom for so long,” Harvey says. “They fall and fracture their hip, or they just go in their diaper and sit there for an hour until someone comes and cleans them. That’s how you get pressure sores.”
In New Mexico, the Department of Health has oversight of investigations in which the alleged perpetrator of elder abuse is employed by a nursing home facility. ALTSD oversees cases involving community members—such as relatives of victims.
Figures from DOH show a rise in such nursing home cases, from four in 2008 to 15 so far this year.
However, with the state’s confidentiality laws, the specifics behind those cases remain unknown.
“There’s a conflict,” Welsh says. “We want to protect the people who are vulnerable but, without some transparency, how can there be accountability?