Alexandria police charged a former caregiver at a Sunrise Senior Living facility yesterday with neglecting two incapacitated residents after police said the employee fell asleep on the job and didn't respond to residents' pleas for help.
The employee, Elizabeth Thorpe-Saffa, 54, of Alexandria, and a second worker were fired from Sunrise shortly after the incident Aug. 1 in which police were called to the facility on Duke Street and found two residents in distress -- one man lying on the floor calling out for help, another having trouble with a catheter. He called 911 out of frustration.
Police said that after an expansive search, three employees were found asleep on various floors. Police sirens and an audible burglar alarm were not enough to rouse them, officials on the scene later reported.
Police charged Thorpe-Saffa with two counts of abuse and neglect, misdemeanors each punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Thorpe-Saffa turned herself in to police yesterday and was released on a summons to appear in court Thursday. A telephone message left at the address listed on her arrest warrant was not returned.
Sunrise spokeswoman Sarah Evers said yesterday that the company has policies and procedures to make sure staff members are on duty and alert at all times.
"This [incident in Alexandria] was an infraction of those policies and procedures," Evers said. "We're going back to reinforce them to make sure this remains an isolated incident."
Although Alexandria police spokeswoman Amy Bertsch said reports of abuse and neglect are something the department takes "very seriously," data suggest that similar cases of wrongdoing in Virginia do not often reach courts.
State records show about 4,400 cases of abuse, neglect or exploitation in assisted living facilities since 1995, but those responsible are rarely prosecuted.
"I think historically there have been very few of these cases [prosecuted] around the state," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney S. Randolph Sengel. "I would submit it's not because the conduct doesn't support it, but I think it either goes unreported or it's not followed up the way it ought to be."
David Sadowski, president of the Virginia Coalition on Aging, called the lack of police involvement in such incidents "a nationwide problem."
"I think they think [nursing home and senior facilities] are an area that is not part of the community, that they're a separate entity," Sadowski said. "If something goes on there that's a mistake, that it's an accident. But it's not in a lot of cases."
The quality of care in Virginia's assisted living facilities has evolved into a political issue, with some members of the General Assembly vowing to introduce legislation to overhaul the system.
Alexandria police said yesterday that they don't anticipate any additional charges against past or present employees of Sunrise as a result of their investigation into the incident.
Sunrise Senior Living is the nation's largest chain of its kind, with more than 370 assisted living operations. Alexandria's facility is privately owned and licensed for 109 beds.
Sunrise markets itself as providing special services for dementia sufferers, which it says includes a "safe and stimulating" environment. But licensing records on Sunrise facilities in Virginia cite about 80 violations related to seriously mentally impaired residents from 2000 through early this year.
The Alexandria facility was fined twice in 2001 for lapses in the care of residents and was cited in February 2003 for not providing aggression training to staff members after an incident of violence between two residents, according to state records.
Sunrise is licensed through Virginia's Department of Social Services, the sole agency that can mandate changes in procedures.
Officials with the department said yesterday that they are completing their investigation into the August incident at Sunrise and expect to issue a report next week. The Alexandria facility sent a letter to residents and relatives Sept. 13, saying it would share the findings of its internal probe when regulators release theirs.