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Minnesota's system of preventing violence in senior homes is badly broken and can only be fixed with stronger state oversight and tougher penalties against facilities and perpetrators of abuse, a state work group concluded Monday after weeks of work.

Their report, released late Monday, calls for "immediate and dramatic" reforms in Minnesota's regulation of senior care facilities.

The state work group, led by families of elder abuse victims and senior advocates, was requested by Gov. Mark Dayton in November after the publication of a five-part Star Tribune series documenting the state's failure to investigate hundreds of beatings, sexual assaults and robberies in senior homes across the state.

In a sweeping condemnation of that system, the work group issued a long and detailed list of recommendations to lawmakers. The 58-page report calls for tougher penalties against facilities where serious abuse occurs; changes to state law to give abuse victims and their families access to reports of abuse; tougher criminal prosecution of abusers; and increased oversight of the fast-growing assisted-living industry, which operates under less regulation than nursing homes.

"The problems in the regulatory system demand immediate and dramatic fixes," the group wrote. "The recommendations reflect the experiences of our organizations and a belief that older and vulnerable adults and their families should be at the center of any reform."

The report released Monday provides the first detailed blueprint toward broad-based statutory reform, and not just administrative actions by state agencies.

It recommends that the 2018 Legislature address the secrecy and "power and knowledge imbalance" that currently surrounds elder abuse cases. 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. The group recommends giving families access to reports of allegations of abuse, as well as enshrining the rights of Minnesota families to place cameras inside rooms to monitor the quality of care of their loved ones at senior care facilities.

To deter abuse, the group also recommends changes to the criminal code. These would include allowing prosecutors to charge perpetrators of abuse with a gross misdemeanor for "terrorizing assaults" that do not result in physical injuries. Under current law, prosecutors are unable to bring such charges in the absence of demonstrable bodily harm, the group said. The group also recommends establishing a "private right of action," to facilitate lawsuits when seniors' rights are violated.

The group also called for new regulatory standards for assisted-living facilities — a fast-growing but lightly regulated industry that now serves more than 50,000 Minnesotans in nearly 1,200 facilities. Among them would be standards for staffing, training, admission and discharge for these facilities, as well clear definitions for dementia care.

The panel also emphasized the importance of restoring confidence in Minnesota's regulatory system, which has been undermined by egregious bureaucratic delays and reports of mismanagement. It recommends increasing the frequency of state inspections for home care and assisted-living providers and using a wider variety of sanctions, including provisional licenses and increased fines, to combat violations of state law.

Complaints soar

Kristine Sundberg, president of Elder Voice Family Advocates, one of the five consumer groups that wrote the report, stressed the urgency of acting at a Senate committee hearing last week. "Quite literally, our loved ones are being seriously harmed daily and some are dying a premature and painful death," Sundberg said. "It needs to stop and that's our passion."

The Dayton administration has come under fire from lawmakers and victims' advocates for not reacting quickly enough to a dramatic surge in elder abuse reports in recent years. The number of allegations received by the Minnesota Health Department has swelled from about 4,000 in 2010 to more than 25,000 in 2016. While agency officials say they review each of these allegations, only 3 percent were investigated on site by state inspectors in 2016, state records show.

Even in the rare cases when abuse allegations are investigated, the cases can drag on for months or longer, undermining criminal prosecutions and angering families of abuse victims, the Star Tribune found.

In interviews last month, employees at the Department of Health said they were so overwhelmed with backlogged cases that they dumped some complaints into recycling bins without reading them. Others said unread complaint forms piled up into stacks 2 feet high and went missing for months at a time. The delays frustrated relatives who reported abuse because they could not learn what happened to their loved ones, the Star Tribune found.

In a statement, Dayton said he will closely review the panel's report and work with lawmakers to implement its recommendations in the upcoming Legislative session. "We must and will do more to protect the health, safety, and dignity of all our state's senior citizens," he said.

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