“I was not protected. And when I went for help, I did not get it immediately. And of course, the person who did this to me is still out there. That’s very disturbing.”
Catherine Gotcher-Girolamo, 73, was scheduled for a routine diaper change at Avocado Post Acute nursing home in El Cajon, early one morning in June last year. But during the course of the change she was sexually assaulted by her caregiver, Matthew Fluckiger.
Unfortunately, this incident is far from being an isolated one.
Almost 1 in 10 Americans aged 60+ have suffered elder abuse in some way. Some believe that these estimates are much lower than the actual number. According to one study, it is estimated that only 1 in 14 cases of abuse are actually reported to authorities
Nursing home residents are often at the mercy of their caregivers. Around one million of elderly Americans across the country live in nursing homes, some with debilitating physical and psychological issues. And there are have been numerous instances where caregivers have either taken advantage of vulnerable residents, and have abused, neglected, or otherwise mistreated them. This includes instances of sexual abuse as well.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) says one of the reasons for underreporting of elder abuse is that even when it’s reported it “isn’t taken seriously because of the victim’s age or assumptions about their mental capabilities.”
This may have been the case for Catherine Gotcher-Girolamo.
On the morning of June 19, 2019, Catherine was molested under the pretext of being cleaned after her diaper change. “I asked him to stop and he kept telling me that he had to clean me,” she said. “And I kept saying, ‘no, you’re hurting me here.’ He kept hurting me. I just went limp. It was really horrible.”
According to a California Department of Public Health (CDPH) investigation, Catherine told other caregivers at the nursing home that she was sexually assaulted, even using the word “sodomized” to describe her trauma.
But her expectations fell short. While some staff members were concerned, others acted like they weren’t sure if what she was reporting was true.
Catherine saw a certified nursing assistant and a licensed vocational nurse that day, and reportedly let both of them know that she had been assaulted. Catherine told CDPH investigators that she also reported the incident to Avocado’s administrator, Dina Mookini, the same day. Mookini holds that Catherine did not “did not allude to the incident being sexual, but that [her] story seemed to ‘evolve,’” stating that what she had investigated on June 19 was an “allegation of rough handling.”
Catherine had expected that Fluckiger would be fired immediately.
But he just received a two-day suspension before he was allowed to return to work. Catherine was reportedly told that he had been cleared of wrongdoing and wouldn’t be caring for her anymore.
Delay Led to Further Harm
It took the nursing home eight days to finally report the assault to the El Cajon Police Department. The delay meant that Fluckiger wasn’t arrested quickly and was able to find work somewhere else.
Within two months of the assault at Avocado Post Acute nursing home, Fluckiger allegedly molested another elderly resident, this time at the San Diego Post-Acute Center. He is reported to have jumped on her and touched her breasts.
Fluckiger had also been accused of propositioning a patient at another nursing home before he was hired by Avocado, state investigators revealed in their report.
The department didn’t revoke Fluckiger’s license to work as a nursing assistant till August 2020, more than a year after CDPH started investigating him.
Avocado has now been cited for three violations for improperly reporting Catherine’s assault. El Cajon Police is still investigating Fluckiger for allegedly assaulting Catherine, as well as the allegations from the other two nursing homes.
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Terrible Reporting By the Nursing Home Delayed Investigation
According to state and federal law, nursing home staff are “mandatory reporters.” They are required to report any allegation of abuse to the proper authority.
Additionally, under California laws, staff is required to promptly report all allegations of “abuse, neglect, exploitation or mistreatment” to management. In turn, the nursing home is mandated to report any allegations of sexual abuse or serious bodily injury to the local police and CDPH no later than two hours after such an incident.
But Avocado made no report of sexual abuse.
State investigators said that the facility’s inaccurate reporting “had the potential to put other [Avocado] residents at risk of sexual abuse.”
Not only did the nursing home delay taking action, it also tried to get Catherine to agree to statements which would lessen the nursing home’s liability.
Over the course of Catherine’s lawsuit, the nursing home tried to get her to sign a statement to the effect that she could have refused to allow Fluckiger to “rub on” her during the assault. Further the home also wanted her to agree that she could have filed a police report about the alleged assault herself.
A History of Inadequate Care
Avocado has a track record of failing to take good care of its residents. According to CDPH, the facility has the second-highest number of residents who tested positive for COVID-19 among nursing homes in San Diego County.
It has also faced many complaints of providing inadequate care. These complaints have ranged from poor control of infections and resident abuse to inadequate supervision and falsification of records.
According to the Department of Public Health, 462 complaints were filed against the nursing home from 2017 to Oct 5, 2020. Of these, 56 were filed this year alone. This was more than four times the statewide average.
We Can Help
Elder abuse is a major social issue. We must ensure that our loved ones are cared for and protected, especially when they are elderly, vulnerable, and fragile.
If your loved one has faced abuse or neglect at a nursing home, don’t hesitate to seek the help your family needs. We offer compassionate representation to many abuse survivors and can guide you if you wish to take legal action. Reach out to us today for a free consultation. We don’t charge a penny until you receive your settlement or verdict.