In a story that's as completely horrifying as it is infuriating, an 89-year-old resident of a senior living home in Northern Minnesota was raped by her caretaker. Her appalling treatment didn't stop there, though: after reporting her assault, she was sent to a psychiatric ward and kept in solitary for three days; she wasn't given an examination until she left the psychiatric hospital; and she was accused by nursing home administrators of being a liar and a "flirt."
According to the Star Tribune, the woman — a resident at the Edgewood Vista Facility in Hermantown, MN — was sexually assaulted by a nursing assistant, Andrew Scott Merzwski, after he entered her room to give her medication. The victim notified her daughter the next morning, who called the police. According to court documents, Merzwski admitted to raping the resident after giving her narcotics that he knew would render her "mentally incapacitated." Despite that, the victim (who suffers from early stages of dementia and memory loss) was taken to a nearby hospital and locked in a psychiatric ward for three days while investigators tried to determine the veracity of her story. The investigators were not informed of Merzwski's confession. According to the court testimony of Teresa Flesvig, a nurse examiner at the hospital, "The room she was in was dark and cold… and they locked her in at night and all she had was a blanket."
It wasn't until the victim was allowed to leave the ward — a full five days after her assault — that she was examined for evidence of rape. According to Flesvig, the laceration from the rape was the "biggest tear" she'd seen in all six years of her work in the field. And the horrific examination results match the police report: "[The victim] said that she hadn't had sex for 8 years and she felt like it hurt because she was essentially a virgin again and that she had never planned on having sex again." There's absolutely no excuse for not administering an examination immediately — but instead, the victim was left completely alone, presumably in a great amount of pain.
Days later, the victim was sent back to Edgewood and expected to keep living in the room in which she was raped; as a result, she was so distressed and terrified that she attempted to barricade her door so that staff could not enter. Despite all of this, the facility maintained that only the employee was responsible for the attack, and the Minnesota Health Department agreed with that conclusion in its investigation of the facility. However, new recently-filed court documents contend that Edgewood employees intentionally impeded the investigation and argue that the Health Dept. failed in its duty as a regulator.
Here are some of the most horrific bits of testimony: a sexual assault advocate who visited the victim in the hospital claims that she was never once told by the staff about Merzwski's admission to the police. In fact, even though Merzwski admitted to drugging and assaulting the victim, the home's clinical services director continued to defend him and engage in blatant victim-blaming. According to court testimony, Marilyn Moore, the director of clinical services at Edgewood, asked Flesvig, "Did [the victim] tell you that this was consensual? Did she tell you that she flirts with this boy mercilessly?" In a separate conversation with a sexual assault advocate, she said that she thought the victim was "making it up" and called her a "flirt."
Moore's refusal to believe the survivor's account is especially callous in light of the victim's early-stage dementia. As Jude Foster, program director at Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) in Duluth, told the Star Tribune, "People who suffer from dementia are prime targets [for sexual abuse] because there is always a credibility issue. Did they make this up? Are they just confused?" The Minnesota Dept. of Health has received six allegations of sexual abuse in senior assisted living homes since 2011, but the number is likely far higher because many cases go unreported or not believed. That someone whose job is to ensure the safety, security and health of senior citizens would engage in such brutal victim-blaming — and that she'd refuse to even acknowledge a victim's story because she suffers from memory loss — is unconscionable.
Merzwski was sentenced to just a year and a month in prison for sexual assault. Hopefully the survivor's new suit against Edgewood succeeds where the Health Department's lackluster investigation failed and holds the facility accountable for its complicity in her abuse. As her lawyer, Mark Kosieradzki, wondered, "Is this a situation where the state doesn't understand that a woman is harmed if she's raped?"
Image via EdgewoodSeniorLiving.com.