PHOENIX —An Arizona woman in a vegetative state who was sexually assaulted at a long-term care facility and had a baby is recovering at a hospital along with her child, authorities said Wednesday.
Commenting for the first time on the investigation since the Dec. 29 birth came to light, Phoenix police said finding a suspect is a top priority. Police are gathering DNA from all male employees at the facility.
“She was not in a position to give consent to any of this,” police spokesman Tommy Thompson said. “So if anyone can understand that, this was a helpless victim who was sexually assaulted.”
He didn’t release the conditions of the woman and child.
Hacienda HealthCare owns the care facility and said it welcomed the DNA testing. Authorities served a search warrant Tuesday.
“We will continue to cooperate with Phoenix police and all other investigative agencies to uncover the facts in this deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation,” the company said in a statement.
The case has triggered reviews by state agencies and highlighted safety concerns for severely disabled or incapacitated patients. Local news website Azfamily.com first reported that the woman in a vegetative state for more than 10 years after a near-drowning had given birth.
A lawyer for the woman’s family said they were outraged at the “neglect of their daughter.” It’s unclear if staff members at the facility were aware of her pregnancy until the birth.
“The family would like me to convey that the baby boy has been born into a loving family and will be well cared for,” Phoenix attorney John Micheaels said in a statement.
Officials with the San Carlos Apache tribe of southeastern Arizona said they were “deeply shocked and horrified at the treatment of one of our members,” a 29-year-old woman.
“When you have a loved one committed to palliative care, when they are most vulnerable and dependent upon others, you trust their caretakers,” tribal chairman Terry Rambler said. “Sadly, one of her caretakers was not to be trusted and took advantage of her. It is my hope that justice will be served.”
San Carlos Apache Police Chief Alejandro Benally said Phoenix police “will do all they can to find the perpetrator.”
A spokesman for Hacienda HealthCare, David Leibowitz, said investigators served a search warrant Tuesday to obtain DNA samples from all male staffers — a day after company CEO Bill Timmons stepped down.
Board member Gary Orman said the facility “will accept nothing less than a full accounting of this absolutely horrifying situation.”
“We will do everything in our power to ensure the safety of every single one of our patients and our employees,” Orman said in a statement.
The Hacienda facility serves infants, children and young adults who are “medically fragile” or have developmental disabilities, according to its website.
After the reports, the Arizona Department of Health Services said new safety measures have been implemented, including increased staff presence during any patient interaction, more monitoring of patient care areas and additional security measures involving visitors.
The state’s online complaint database for care facilities shows multiple complaints about the Hacienda center going back to 2013. Most of them involve fire drill and evacuation preparation or Medicaid eligibility.
But one complaint from December 2013 outlines an allegation that a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments about four patients two months earlier. Nobody relayed the incidents to an administrator. That employee was later fired.
Martin Solomon, a personal injury attorney in Phoenix whose clients are mostly vulnerable adult victims of abuse and neglect, said a lawyer representing the woman who gave birth should call for all pertinent medical records, a list of current and former employees and any past litigation involving Hacienda.
It would be hard for Hacienda to escape any kind of liability in court, he said.
“There’s a lot of information we do not have. But things like this don’t happen without someone either knowing about it or should have known about it,” Solomon said. “Whether it’s an employee or someone from the outside, the facility has an obligation to protect residents.”
Advocates for people with disabilities say Arizona needs to find a way to monitor allegations of sexual abuse and sexual violence in group settings. Doing background checks isn’t enough, said Erica McFadden, executive director of the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council.
“I think when you’ve had somebody who’s had multiple allegations from different parties, there has to be some way to track that,” McFadden said. “If it’s the same story from different people, then there’s something wrong.”
The council recently formed a task force to look at how to improve training for health care workers when it comes to identifying and reporting sexual abuse.
“We don’t have a systematic way to train people what’s a good touch or a bad touch. We also don’t have required training for providers,” McFadden said. “We really need a lot of work in this area.”
Jon Meyers, executive director of The Arc of Arizona, an advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, called the allegations “disturbing, to put it mildly.”
“I can’t believe someone receiving that level of constant care wasn’t recognized as being pregnant prior to the time she delivered,” Meyers said.
By Terry Tang