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The head of a key committee in the Minnesota Senate is preparing a package of reforms that would expand the state’s power to investigate elder abuse, while eliminating much of the secrecy that surrounds such investigations.

Sen. Karin Housley, chairwoman of the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy committee, said the state must act swiftly to address what she termed “an emergency situation” involving criminal abuse in senior care homes that goes uninvestigated and unpunished.

“This must stop,” Housley said in an interview. “When you hear these horrific stories of abuse, and hear reports of families waiting years for some resolution to an investigation, you realize that we need more resources in this area.”

Housley, a Republican from St. Marys Point near Afton, was responding to a Star Tribune investigation published this week that detailed chronic failures by state regulators to investigate incidents of criminal abuse in senior care homes.

The investigation found that hundreds of residents of such homes are beaten, sexually assaulted or robbed each year. Yet the vast majority of these incidents are never resolved, in part because the state agency charged with regulating such facilities lacks the staff and forensic expertise to investigate them.

Gov. Mark Dayton also responded to the series, announcing Wednesday that he would create a cabinet level task force to address the state’s failure to protect elderly residents from abuse. Dayton said he wants reform proposals in time for the 2018 Legislature, which convenes in February.

Dr. Ed Ehlinger, the state health commissioner, said in an interview that the agency was caught off-guard by a surge of maltreatment allegations, which have increased sevenfold since 2010. “We’ve been running fast to catch up, but it’s clear we’re not running fast enough,” he said.

With funding approved early this year by the Legislature, the department plans to double the number of staff devoted to investigating and processing maltreatment complaints. In addition, the agency is modernizing its computer systems so that it can share more information about abuse investigations electronically.

The state Department of Health also plans to expand its efforts around preventing abuse, through increased collaboration with senior care providers, Ehlinger said. “We’re trying to expand the narrative to make sure that prevention is a piece,” he said.

The Star Tribune report also highlighted the obstacles many families face when they try to find out what happened to their loved ones in senior facilities. Even in cases of serious abuse, involving physical or sexual assaults, families are often told that the state’s investigations are confidential and that they are not entitled to even basic details.

These investigations can drag on for months without a resolution, according to records reviewed by the Star Tribune. As a result, relatives of abuse victims are sometimes kept in the dark indefinitely.

Housley said such secrecy is “untenable” and prevents families from making informed judgments about care for their loved ones. She is crafting legislation that would require senior care facilities and the Minnesota Department of Health to share details of abuse reports with elderly victims or their assigned legal representatives.

Last year, the Health Department received more than 25,000 allegations of maltreatment in state-licensed senior homes, including unexplained injuries, resident-on-resident altercations, physical abuse by staff, and thefts.

When these reports are filed by facilities, known as “self reports,” they are kept confidential from victims and families until they are completed. But 99 percent of these facility self-reports are never investigated on site by the state Health Department, which means that details of thousands of allegations never come to light. Many of these cases are dropped without the family ever knowing the scope of the abuse.

Suzanne Scheller, an attorney from Champlin and founder of Elder Voice Family Advocates, an advocacy group for better care for seniors, said senior residents and their legal representatives should be made aware of any allegations that the resident has been abused, as soon as they surface.

Senior industry representatives have long maintained that the public benefits from some privacy, because facilities are more likely to report abuse if they know the information will not be made public.

A number of senior advocacy groups, including the Minnesota chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, said they support giving abuse victims and their relatives greater access to state maltreatment investigations.

“Transparency and openness to families should be at the center of the discussion,” said Beth McMullen, vice president of government affairs for the Alzheimer’s Association.

However, another prominent legislator said the state should focus on enforcing current laws before creating new ones.

“The reason we’re in this much trouble is because we’re not following the laws that we already have,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, chairman of the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.

For instance, state law requires that investigations into allegations of abuse and neglect in senior facilities be completed within 60 days. Last year, however, the Health Department completed only 15 percent of such investigations on time.

In addition, state law says that home care and assisted-living providers must undergo full inspections at least every three years. A review of public records, however, found that fewer than half of these providers are receiving such inspections on schedule. Some assisted-living facilities have never been inspected, records show.

“People have died at the hands of facilities that people thought were safe,” Abeler said.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres