Sex offenders and nursing homes
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism matched addresses from the state’s sex offender and nursing home databases. Explore the results below.
State law doesn’t require notices to residents
By Nick Penzenstadler and Kate Golden
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Donald Henriksen is a 74-year-old paraplegic sex offender with cerebral palsy who lives in a nursing home in Tomah. Officials there have deemed him to no longer be a threat to anyone.
But that wasn’t always the case.
In 1992, Henriksen, then 56 and residing at the same nursing home, was sentenced to five years of probation for attempted sexual exploitation of a child.
Henriksen is one of at least 45 registered sex offenders living among other nursing home residents, according to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism review of addresses for the state’s nearly 20,000 registered sex offenders and 399 licensed nursing homes.
But unlike many other sex offenders, most of those in nursing homes live unnoticed by their neighbors: State and federal laws don’t require background checks of residents or notification to the vulnerable people who live, work and visit with them.
According to the criminal complaint filed in Monroe County Circuit Court, Henriksen, armed with a camera, followed a 10-year-old girl walking home from school in his wheelchair and asked her to “spread her legs.” Authorities later found nude photos in his nursing home room of other children.
Sex offenders’ residency in nursing homes poses special dangers because many residents are physically or mentally vulnerable, share common areas such as lounges and generally stay in unlocked rooms. Advocates say compounding the problem is some victims’ inability to communicate or report incidents due to their conditions.
Yet under state law, homes are not required to notify nursing home residents of sex offenders in their midst.
In Wisconsin, offenders are required to register with the state if they were convicted of certain sex crimes after Dec. 25, 1993. They must report their residence and place of employment to the state for 15 years or life, depending on the offense.
Notification fliers are distributed by law enforcement for sex offenders moving into neighborhoods only when they are released from confinement — and then only if the person has been a repeat or “sexually violent” offender.
Reporters from the Center called each of the nursing homes where there were matches between the sex offender registry and the nursing home directory. They confirmed 27 of 46 matches and could not confirm the rest because nursing homes either cited privacy concerns or did not respond.
The most common conviction among the matches was first-degree sexual assault of a child, the Center found.
Officials at some of the facilities housing offenders declined to say whether they knew of their criminal backgrounds or whether other residents and staff had been informed. Some cited medical privacy concerns. Others would only say that they follow state regulations intended to keep all residents safe.
New laws follow incidents in Illinois
Wisconsin, along with many other states, doesn’t track how many of its registered sex offenders live in long-term care facilities.
A recent string of gruesome incidents in Illinois in which elderly residents were raped, beaten or killed by mentally ill felons spotlighted the problem of criminals living among vulnerable residents. A series of new laws there require criminal background checks of nursing home residents and outline specific notification procedures for residents.
In 2008, officials cited a home in Illinois after a 72-year-old sexual predator, John Gorzela, went unnoticed in a facility and sexually assaulted a female employee, according to a Chicago Tribune report. Illinois now tracks all felons in nursing homes. It reports having 178 sex offenders living in nursing homes out of the more than 24,000 registered offenders in the state.
A bill was introduced into the Ohio legislature last year mandating notification of sex offenders living in nursing homes after a newspaper analysis found 110 living within the state’s facilities.
In 2006, national concern prompted the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate the problem of sex offenders living in nursing homes.
The GAO estimated that nationwide, 700 sex offenders were living in nursing homes. The agency also found that 57 percent of the offenders were under 65, and most of them considerably younger than the typical nursing home resident.
Existing rules require protection of residents
Otis Woods, administrator of the Division of Quality Assurance, part of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, said nursing homes must determine if they can adequately care for any patient when considering an admission. He said nursing home administrators are well-advised to know the criminal histories of their residents.
“Right now, not doing a background check isn’t a violation of the state rule, but it’s good risk management,” Woods said.
In Wisconsin, nursing homes that fail to protect their residents from harm — even from other residents — can face the loss of their license.
The problems in Illinois brought the issue to John Sauer’s radar last year. He is executive director of a nursing-home trade group, the Wisconsin Association of Homes and Services for the Aging.
Sauer believes Illinois may have more problems because pre-admission assessments are more thorough in Wisconsin and the state has harsh penalties for failing to safeguard residents.
“Our advice is to collect as much information prior to agreeing to admit the individual,” he said.
But William Swadley’s criminal history apparently was a surprise to officials at the Stoughton nursing home where the 59-year-old was recovering recently from a leg infection. Swadley said it wasn’t until a television news report a year ago that his fellow residents — and according to him, the facility itself — realized Swadley was a sex offender.
“The people that run the place didn’t talk to me about (being a sex offender) until after the news came out,” Swadley said in an interview. The facility, Nazareth Health and Rehabilitation Center, declined to comment for this report.
Swadley was convicted in Dane County Circuit Court in 1990 of sexually assaulting a 9-year-old girl and attempted sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl, and again in 1992 for enticement of a 12-year-old girl. The latter was committed while Swadley was in a wheelchair.
Nursing homes can turn down applicants if they feel they are a risk to other residents, according to Woods, including residents with criminal backgrounds.
In cases where a sex offender is still being closely monitored, a supervisor works with the facility to ensure safety for other residents living near the individual, but the Wisconsin Department of Corrections isn’t required to notify other residents, according to Melissa B. Roberts, a legislative liaison at DOC who has spent more than a decade working with the state’s sex offender registry.
One of the sex offenders living in a Wisconsin nursing home was confirmed by Cherise Nielsen, a DOC supervisor in Whitehall. Nielsen said the department leaves it up to the nursing facilities to decide whether to notify other residents of a sex offender.
“We had one nursing home that posted a sign on a man’s door that said no one under the age of 18 was allowed to visit,” Nielsen said.
Some aging offenders still dangerous
Wes Bledsoe, a national advocate of nursing home regulation based in Oklahoma, hears the same argument everywhere: Regulation is unnecessary because offenders in nursing homes are too old or feeble to pose a threat.
“If you say it’s OK for these people to live there, then you wouldn’t mind this guy living with your family,” said Bledsoe, founder of the group A Perfect Cause.
In Wisconsin, the oldest member of the sex offender registry is 99 and living in a nursing facility. He was convicted of first-degree sexual assault of a child when he was 82.
“We’ve documented people in wheelchairs or with amputations that have raped other residents,” Bledsoe said.
Although an offender’s threat tends to subside with age, impulsive and inappropriate sexual behavior may become harder to manage with certain conditions such as dementia or stroke, said Michael Caldwell, a psychologist from Mendota Mental Health Institute who researches sex offenders.
Caldwell pointed out that nursing homes already routinely deal with such problems even among non-offenders.
“I would advise nursing homes to assess someone’s medical and behavioral history first,” Caldwell said. “Their criminal history should be looked at, but is a secondary issue.”
Regulation push faces opposition
Bledsoe has lobbied Congress and states for years to mandate video monitoring in nursing home common areas and for criminal background checks of residents. He said strong opposition from the nursing-home lobby has blocked legislation in Washington, D.C. and at the state level.
He believes residents, visitors and staff at facilities where sex offenders live deserve to be notified.
“It should be posted on every entrance so that visiting families, church groups and Boy Scouts know,” Bledsoe said. “Don’t you think these groups would want to know?”
Sauer and other nursing home administrators interviewed for this article are leery of any notification requirement.
“The fact that somebody might have a checkered past doesn’t necessarily translate into them posing a serious and immediate threat,” Sauer said. “By the time people in our state need nursing home care, they’re generally in a fairly compromised position medically. … The posting could backfire and actually be counterproductive and create unnecessary concern.”
Representatives of some facilities say they already have and follow detailed plans for handling sex offenders. Trempealeau County Health Care Center in Whitehall houses three offenders in its Institute for Mental Disease facility, according to the state’s sex offender registry.
“We’re not a typical geriatric nursing home,” said Phil Borreson, the home’s recently retired director. “We have the ability to provide locked units … we’re very skilled and adept at handling the behavioral challenges.”
Kandi Hammond, a social worker who cared for Henriksen in Tomah, said last year the man had been there for a long time and no longer posed a threat.
“For a while, he wasn’t allowed to have contact with minors,” Hammond said. “We knew if we had minors coming in for an activity, he just couldn’t participate.”
Hammond said the facility checks the sex offender registry before admitting any resident and implements necessary safeguards.
But Bledsoe said leaving safety in the hands of individual nursing homes is too risky.
“The bottom line is when you put predators in with prey, someone’s going to get bit,” Bledsoe said. “That has happened again and again, and it happens far more than any of us know.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio and the UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and other news media. Lauren Hasler, a reporter for the Center, contributed to this report.