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Nursing home sued for employing registered sex offender

A Lexington nursing home hired a maintenance worker after he had been arrested for sexual solicitation of a minor and kept him on after he was placed on Kentucky's sex offender registry, according to a lawsuit filed against the home.

The case against Lexington Country Place points out what advocates call a glaring hole in Kentucky's laws to protect nursing home residents: The state requires criminal background checks for employees who care directly for residents but not for support staff such as custodians, maintenance and food service workers.

"We think all nursing home employees should have criminal background checks," said Bernie Vonderheide, founder of Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform, an advocacy group.

Cora Alexandria Combs, a former nurse's aide at Lexington Country Place, said in a lawsuit filed in Fayette Circuit Court in June that Fred Allen Leonard sexually harassed her and stalked her before he was suspended by the nursing home in May.

Leonard's status as a registered sex offender also put nursing home residents at risk, the lawsuit said. Nursing home officials ran a credit check on Leonard, 50 but not a criminal background check, according to the suit.

"There are no allegations that Mr. Leonard ever behaved improperly toward any ... patients or residents," an official of Five Star Senior Living, the company that owns the nursing home, said in a statement.

"Once Five Star became aware of Mr. Leonard's criminal conviction, his employment was immediately terminated," said Stacey Fields Spalding, regional director of health services for the company.

Although there is no state law regarding criminal checks for all nursing home employees, there are state and federal regulations that facilities "shall not employ individuals who have been convicted of abusing, neglecting or mistreating individuals."

But without a state law specifically including all employees in criminal background checks, there's too much ambiguity in what nursing homes are required to do, Vonderheide said.

A spokesman for the Kentucky Association of Health Care Facilities said that the organization encouraged the General Assembly in 1994 to enact legislation requiring criminal background checks for employees who work directly with residents.

The organization "is not in a position to comment on legislation that has not been filed" to require such checks for all employees, said Steve McClain, the spokesman.

Arrest announced

Combs' lawsuit alleged that nursing home officials could easily have found out about it before they hired him.

In January 2008, Kentucky State Police announced in a news release that Leonard had been arrested for "unlawful use of electronic means to induce a minor."

The facility hired Leonard in July 2008, the lawsuit said. Leonard was allowed to move freely about the Country Place facilities with the exception of patient rooms, where he was required to be accompanied by another staff member, it said.

Residents "were physically vulnerable to any type of abuse which might be imposed on them by a younger or more physically able person," the lawsuit states.

Leonard was indicted in May 2008. After he was convicted on the charge nearly a year later, he was placed on Kentucky's' sex offender registry.

He continued to work at the facility.

Combs, who had worked at Country Place since August 2008, was put in direct contact with Leonard earlier this year when her schedule changed.

Unwelcome incidents

Leonard began approaching Combs, standing very close and staring at her, "causing Combs to feel threatened and in fear for her safety in her job," the lawsuit states.

At one point, "Leonard approached Combs from behind and ... wrapped his arms around Combs' waist in an unwelcome hug."

In later incidents, he angrily grabbed Combs' arm because she wouldn't talk to him, stalked her and pinned her up against a wall in an elevator, according to the lawsuit. There were witnesses to some of the incidents, it said.

Combs told her supervisor, who told Combs that Leonard "had done similar things to other female employees," but they took no action, the lawsuit said.

Other nursing supervisors also did nothing, the lawsuit said. In addition, when a maintenance supervisor told Leonard to leave Combs alone, Leonard replied that he had "a touching problem."

"For months, Leonard had engaged in unwanted, inappropriate acts of touching, hugging, stalking and frightening her, but her reports of his unwelcome assault and battery were ignored by Country Place management," the lawsuit said.

With the incidents mounting, Combs contacted the facility's human resources department. Leonard was suspended on May 3, and, the same day Combs found on the Internet that Leonard was on the state's sex offender registry.

Country Place never revealed to its non-managerial employees that Leonard had been arrested and indicted, the lawsuit alleged.

Cabinet investigating

"Five Star denies any liability to Ms. Combs," Spalding said in the statement. "In fact, the company was in the process of investigating Ms. Combs' allegations and had already suspended Mr. Leonard pending the results when it learned of Mr. Leonard's criminal conviction and terminated his employment."

Bennett Clark, the attorney representing Combs, declined to comment, and Leonard could not immediately be reached.

Combs no longer works for the facility, according to the lawsuit.

The Cabinet for Health and Family Services' Office of Inspector General, the agency that investigates and inspects nursing homes, has not received a complaint about Lexington Country Place employing a registered sex offender, said spokeswoman Beth Fisher.

"The OIG is looking into it and will take appropriate action as necessary," Fisher said.

Since 2000, Vonderheide said, his group has attempted to change state law to include criminal background checks for all nursing home employees.

It has had no success, he said, because Kentucky's nursing home industry lobbied against it.