Elder abuse support group forms

Published 9:13 am Monday, January 19, 2009

A year ago today, they had never met each other.

The 15 families of the alleged abuse victims at Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea could never have imagined that their paths would cross at the center of a nationally known case alleging abuse at a nursing home.

But then in December, prosecutors filed charges against two alleged teenage perpetrators for multiple charges related to abuse. The charges alleged verbal, sexual and physical abuse of several residents.

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Amid their pain that this could be a reality, a few of the families of the alleged victims started seeking out the other families to gain strength from each other.

“I said we need to get together,” said Myrna Sorensen, the daughter of Opal Sande, one of the alleged victims. “We need to support each other. This is really a traumatic thing.”

Though they have not been able to get a full list of all of the families who could have potentially been victims of abuse, several families have come forward little by little to share their stories.

The families met for their first time in an official support group setting this past week.

The group, which they are calling Families Against Nursing Home Abuse, is giving them a chance to talk of their experiences and to gain solace in the fact that there are others who could have potentially gone through the same experiences.

Their long-term goal is to work to prevent abuse of vulnerable adults.

“This isn’t just about the 15 or so who were injured in this case,” said Jan Reshetar, the daughter-in-law of another alleged victim, Grace Reshetar. “It’s all about the future generations that are going to need long-term care.”

As the arraignment of alleged perpetrators Brianna Broitzman and Ashton Larson, both 19, approaches on Wednesday, members of the group say they are feeling a mixture of anxiousness, frustration and anger going into the court appearance.

They’re looking for as many people as they can get to come to the arraignment.

“We’re going in with a little bit of hope there will be some justice,” Reshetar said.

People shouldn’t have to question whether their loved one will be safe in a care facility, she said.

Paul Blom, the nephew of Sylvia Wulff, another alleged victim, said he’s disappointed in the state’s laws for abuse of vulnerable adults.

“There are better laws for animals and children than vulnerable adults,” Blom said.

“Our older people are just as important as our children,” Sorensen added. “They’ve worked hard all their lives.”

She said she’s dealing with her feelings of anger and frustration by talking to other people. She shared the story of her mother in December with the Tribune and has since received a lot of response.

“A lot of people didn’t realize,” she said. “They didn’t know it.”

Blom said he dealt with his feelings after hearing of the alleged abuse by contacting different local and state agencies to try to find some answers.

“No one really wanted to take the lead on this because of privacy,” Blom said. “That’s really the hard part.”

The families said they are frustrated that the two teenagers are being charged with gross misdemeanor charges, when they think the crimes would have been felonies. The investigations said the abuse lasted from January to May 2008, and it cited admissions of disturbing sexual acts.

“We thought the crimes would fit the charges,” Reshetar said. “These are not misdemeanor charges that happened to our loved ones.”

Because of these concerns, they are meeting with nursing home watchdog Wes Bledsoe of Oklahoma to seek answers. He runs a nonprofit organization called A Perfect Cause.

The family members are gathering information and documentation of past events at the care center to compile and give to Bledsoe. This includes letters and correspondence with law enforcement, the nursing home and the Freeborn County attorney, along with a narrative about what has taken place and any kinds of notes about changes to their loved ones.

“I think this whole thing is bigger than any of us have imagined it to be,” Blom said.

Though they would not wish what they have gone through on their worst enemy, they said they hope the things they’ve experienced will be able to enact changes in legislation.

“Now we’ll hear more about it in other cases,” Reshetar said. “People won’t be afraid to speak out.”

Sorensen said she would receive calls in the mornings when her mother was still living that her mother had gotten bruises and skin tears. Now Sorensen wonders if these things were a result of abuse. Her mother, who was in a wheelchair, even broke her ankle. The family never got any explanation as to how it happened, she said.

Herself included, she said oftentimes people would dismiss everything to the Alzheimer’s disease.

“Now we’re wondering,” Sorensen said.

“It’s not that we didn’t see it, but we were directed to think it was part of the disease,” Reshetar added. “We trusted the professionals.”

The families in the support group said they hope they can get as many people to come to the arraignment as they can.

“It’s not just about us,” Reshetar said. “It’s about the community.”

Now, months after the first reports of alleged abuse came out, each of the family members at the abuse support group said it hasn’t gotten any easier to understand what might have happened to their loved one.

“The road you have to take just to get your head around it is just terrible,” Reshetar said. “You’d think after all these months having read it, it wouldn’t be so hard.”

Sorensen said she still has guilty feelings of why she put her mother in the facility in the first place.

“We thought it was a safe place,” she said.

Other share the same doubts. Regardless, the group members said they are dedicated to making themselves heard and to get something good to come out of it.

“They can’t ignore us forever,” Reshetar joked.

For information on the support group, people can contact Reshetar at 402-4749 or Sorensen at 383-6963.