The incident, which allegedly took place earlier this month, is the most recent in a string of surreptitious recordings by employees of nursing homes and assisted-living centers. Many involve the social media network Snapchat.
By Charles Ornstein
A former nursing assistant at a Wisconsin assisted-living facility has been charged with a felony for allegedly taking a video of a mostly naked resident and posting it on Snapchat — the latest in a series of cases in which dehumanizing photos of seniors have been posted on social media.
The employee of Parkside Manor in Kenosha posted a video of a 93-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia sitting on a bed “in a bra and no underwear and no pant[s],” according to a criminal complaint filed last week in Kenosha County. She admitted her action to the facility’s executive director and said “it was immoral and very terribly wrong,” the complaint said.
The employee, Grace Riedlinger, 21, was fired and faces a charge of taking a nude photo without consent, for which she could be sentenced to 1½ years in prison and two years of extended supervision. She could not be reached for comment; her mother said an attorney had advised the family not to discuss the matter.
Last month, ProPublica identified 35 instances since 2012 in which workers at nursing homes and assisted-living centers have surreptitiously shared photos or videos of residents, some of whom were partially or completely naked. At least 16 cases involved Snapchat, a social media service in which photos appear for a few seconds and then disappear with no lasting record. The latest incident adds to those figures.
In a written statement, Parkside Manor’s operator said the company launched an investigation as soon as it learned about the incident and notified state regulators. The employee was terminated and the facility alerted the police department.
“The termination of this employee is consistent with our zero tolerance policy relating to actions contrary our code of conduct,” said David Richey, senior regional director of operations for Senior Lifestyle Corp., in the statement. “Actions such as this will never be tolerated at our community. Our code of conduct contains very specific guidelines to govern employee behavior and includes policies regarding social networking and the use of technology that the employee in question clearly violated.”
Rebecca Dutter, supervisor of Adult Protective Services in Kenosha County, said she was devastated by the incident.
“For those of us who work in this field, it’s such a violation of everything we do, knowing that a client was violated like this,” she said. “I guess it’s our worst fear. We’ve always hoped that it wasn’t happening here.”
After ProPublica’s article last month, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., called on the Senate Aging Committee to investigate the issue. “It is troubling and disturbing that some seniors are unwillingly and unknowingly victims of exploitation and abuse on social media by some nursing home workers,” Donnelly, who serves on the aging committee, said in a statement. “That is why I am asking the Aging Committee to use all appropriate tools and resources to investigate this issue.”
Annie Clark, a spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Senate Aging Committee, said, “Sen. Donnelly has raised a significant issue, and the Senate Aging Committee is currently inquiring into the troubling findings outlined in the ProPublica report.”
Collins and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the committee’s ranking Democrat, requested a review by the Government Accountability Office of all guardianship abuses last September and anticipate a hearing on the issue later this year.
In the Parkside Manor case, the criminal complaint says Riedlinger told a police officer that on January 5, the resident was “giving her a hard time getting changed over for bed.” The resident “was playing tug of war with her and she thought it was funny so she took a video of the encounter and uploaded the video to Snapchat under her ‘story’ section,” the complaint said. (The story section of Snapchat allows users to share videos with all of their friends for 24 hours, as opposed to sending photos or videos to only selected contacts.)
The facility was alerted to the videos by a woman who attended school with Riedlinger and was her Snapchat friend, the complaint said.
The Kenosha News first reported the incident last week.
Dutter of the county’s Adult Protective Services said she hopes senior living facilities will re-evaluate their policies about employees using cell phones around residents.
“Facilities are going to have to figure out some way of eliminating the accessibility of their staff members to do such a thing,” she said. “There are some really, really, good, wonderful skilled nursing assistants, and I don’t want this to be a black eye to all of them, because I’m sure they are disgusted and outraged like the rest of us are too.”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.