Politics & Government

Bill would create an adult abuse registry

Crystal Johnston wants more information used in selection of caregivers for autistic son Daniel, 20.
Crystal Johnston wants more information used in selection of caregivers for autistic son Daniel, 20.

In Kentucky, employers can check a state registry to see whether social workers have found that a specific job applicant has abused or neglected children.

But the state has no such list of people who social workers have found abused or neglected adults.

It's a deficiency state Rep. Ruth Ann Palumbo, D-Lexington, said she will try to fix in a bill to be pre-filed next week for the 2011 General Assembly.

"It's imperative that families know that their loved ones are in good hands," Palumbo said in an interview Friday.

In Gov. Steve Beshear's recent review of ways Kentucky could better protect nursing home residents, nursing home reform advocates called for an adult abuse registry to protect vulnerable elderly or developmentally disabled adults.

Crystal Johnston of Louisville is among those concerned that Kentucky has no mechanism to protect people like her 20-year-old adult son Daniel, who has autism and limited verbal skills.

Johnston said that soon after her son turned 18, social workers substantiated that a worker in a program was abusive to him.

Johnston said that without a registry, and in the absence of a criminal charge, the state social service record that documented the incident "is just a piece of paper that goes in a file."

Stephen S. Zaricki is executive director of a Louisville program for individuals with intellectual disabilities called Community Living.

Zaricki said he hires as many as 30 people each year and asks job applicants if they have ever been named in a confirmed incident of adult abuse or neglect.

But he said if they haven't been criminally charged, he has no way of knowing whether state social workers have determined that the employees were abusive or neglectful in the past.

"We feel very strongly that its an important step to protect both the agencies and disabled people," Zaricki said.

Palumbo said the legislation she plans to file would require the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to create a registry listing each person against whom a charge of abuse, neglect or exploitation of an adult has been substantiated by the cabinet. A person would not be placed on the list unless all administrative appeals had been completed and the finding had been upheld.

The legislation also would say that facilities or programs licensed or certified by the cabinet could not hire or use volunteer services from anyone on the registry.

Similar legislation sponsored by Palumbo did not pass in the 2010 General Assembly. House Bill 520 was amended by another lawmaker to include abortion legislation. Also, the cabinet attached a financial note to the bill, estimating that it would cost $3.2 million annually to create the registry. That would include 12 new staff members, the note said.

But Palumbo said Friday that she thought that it could be done for as little as $15,000, perhaps by connecting it with the existing Nurse Aide Abuse Registry. Palumbo said she was working to find the money in the state budget. Zaricki said it would be important that the registry be created without additional costs to providers, some of which are non-profits.

The bill's $3.2 million cost estimate was based on all licensed or certified health care facilities having to make checks on their employees, contractors and volunteers, said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the Health and Family Services Cabinet.

"Additional personnel would be needed to handle increased requests for checks against a new registry, more appeals and hearings, and a new information system and its maintenance," she said.

Passage of the legislation is a top priority for several groups and agencies in the state.

Similar adult abuse registries are used in states including Delaware and Vermont, said Marsha Hockensmith, executive director of the Kentucky Division of Protection and Advocacy, which works on behalf of individuals with disabilities.

"If somebody abused a person who had a disability, we would want ... to find that out," she said.

April DuVal, executive director of the Louisville-based Council on Developmental Disabilities, said an adult registry is important in preventing job seekers with a history of abuse from finding employment with adults.

"We see this registry as vital to the safety and well-being of adults with disabilities as well as the agencies who provide services," she said.