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Study: Fear of Retaliation Exacerbates Nursing Home Abuse & Neglect

Portrait of a scared female nursing home resident.

Nursing home residents have rights, and one of the most basic rights is the ability to speak up about poor treatment in the facility. However, despite legal protections at the federal and state level, residents do not always have that freedom in practice, in part because they fear they will face retaliation from staff and administration if they complain.

New study sheds light on nursing home retaliation

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology shed light on a critical threat to residents' rights and safety: fear of retaliation. This qualitative study, conducted by gerontologist Eilon Caspi of the University of Connecticut Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP), looked at 100 standard survey and complaint investigation reports from state survey agencies in nursing homes in 30 states to identify four key issues: fear of retaliation, alleged threats of retaliation, perceived retaliation, and actual, confirmed retaliation.

The findings were chilling. "I am nervous now that I said something. They will come at me," said one anonymous resident, highlighting the role fear plays in suppressing complaints.

Fear of retaliation can create an atmosphere where negligence festers

Retaliation is an ever-present threat in any relationship with a significant power imbalance, and because nursing home residents are so vulnerable and so dependent on the facility for their well-being, that fear can easily grow. According to the study, forms of retaliation that residents may fear include:

  • Eviction from the nursing home
  • Delayed care
  • Aggressive confrontations
  • Collective punishment
  • Physical violence

Over time, this fear of retaliation can give rise to a sort of "learned helplessness" in which residents become utterly unable to raise concerns about abuse, neglect, or other care and safety issues in the facility. In such an atmosphere, complaints may never be made, or investigations may be delayed. The results for residents' health and well-being can be severe.

The onus is on nursing homes to create an environment of safety and transparency

As the study results show, even in the absence of actual retaliation, perceived retaliation can be enough to have a chilling effect on reports of abuse or neglect. As such, nursing home administrators need to do more than just refrain from actual retaliation. They need to proactively foster a calm and supportive environment by building relationships with residents and their families, listening empathetically to any concerns, and following through on any complaints with thorough investigation and appropriate intervention.

Unfortunately, in too many nursing homes in Alabama and across the country, that's simply not the case in practice. A 2019 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that nursing home abuse frequently goes unreported, and fear of retaliation likely plays a significant role in that dynamic. And with staffing shortages and other challenges following the COVID-19 pandemic, that problem has likely only grown worse. More must be done to protect residents' right to speak up about abuse and neglect, and pursuing accountability is a critical part of that puzzle.

If your loved one has been harmed in an Alabama nursing home, we can help you pursue justice

Nursing home abuse and neglect often go unreported and unaddressed because residents are so vulnerable. Our mission at Shuttlesworth Law Firm, P.C. is to be a voice for victims and their families. We strive to hold facilities accountable and pursue full and fair compensation for victims of abuse and neglect. Our job is not only to pursue justice for our clients but also to bring about change in the nursing home industry and fight for a better future for Alabama's seniors.

If your loved one was abused or neglected in an Alabama nursing home, our legal team would be honored to listen to your story. Give us a call or contact us online today for a free consultation with an experienced nursing home negligence lawyer. Our office is located in Birmingham, and we handle cases statewide.

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