There have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases of elderly and disabled Albertans being abused in provincially funded facilities over the past seven years and thousands more have filed complaints that were dismissed for lack of proof or other reasons, the Herald has learned.
The province has received an average of 500 abuse complaints a year from facilities housing more than 40,000 seniors and disabled adult residents, according to documents obtained under provincial Freedom of Information legislation.
Less than two per cent are referred to police, government documents show.
Government officials say the figures prove tough new reporting legislation is working, but elder advocates and opposition critics say the system needs major changes to protect Albertans in provincial care from harm.
"It just goes on and on," said Ruth Adria of Elder Advocates of Alberta. "Complaints are usually trivialized or dismissed. There has to be accountability. It has to be known that when there's an assault, someone will be held accountable."
Since the governing Tories proclaimed Protection of Persons in Care legislation in July 2010 to make it against the law not to report abuses, there have been 142 confirmed cases of abuse, documents show.
That data, until the end of January 2012, includes 37 confirmed cases of bodily harm, eight incidents of nonconsensual sexual activity, 67 cases of emotional harm, 22 cases of residents being denied basic necessities, four cases of them being over or under medicated and one case of misappropriating residents' money or property.
Seniors Minister George VanderBurg said he is partly responsible for the high number of abuse complaints because he promotes an abuse hotline number whenever he speaks to seniors or is questioned in the legislature.
"Part of the reason we're getting more concern and more reported incidents is probably my fault," he said. "Every time at question period I'm saying if you have issues of abuse, you're obligated to report it."
He noted most of the cases of abuse reported are emotional, "but that's important, too."
"We're seeing more instances of reporting and I think that's good. It tells us it is working and our message is getting across."
He said the department's contracted investigators do thorough investigations of complaints. "Sometimes they're founded; sometimes they're not."
VanderBurg wasn't concerned 70 per cent of complaints are dismissed and less than two per cent reported to police. "It's a very small number that are criminal in nature," he said.
Since April 2005, there have been 1,021 confirmed cases of abuse, according to government documents.
That includes 549 cases of emotional harm, 216 cases of residents being denied basic necessities, 160 cases of bodily harm, 55 sexual offences, 27 thefts or money or property, and 14 cases of improper medication, according to the Protection of Persons In Care summary of founded complaints.
"We care for a lot of people," said VanderBurg. "I am not downplaying the numbers, but I am telling you one is serious to me."
Wildrose seniors critic Heather Forsyth said many seniors and their families don't want to complain about their treatment in long-term care for fear of retaliation or retribution. She said a former RCMP inspector was "too afraid to complain" and the daughter of a senior delayed filing a complaint until her mother died.
"We're dealing with seniors who are afraid to report incidents and that sends shivers down my spine," she said.
Forsyth said there are not enough inspections of care facilities and not sufficient public reporting of the complaints. The situation cries out for whistleblower protection legislation and a mechanism for anonymous reporting of abuse, she added.
Seniors Department spokesperson Carolyn Gregson said the law puts the onus on the service providers in publicly funded facilities to report any abuse of residents.
"We're making them the front-line watchdog under the act. They are obligated to report anything and everything they see and when it comes to us, it's reviewed and investigated, if warranted."
She said the abuse line receives almost 4,000 calls annually.
"I think this has made a difference," she said. "Any time you actually report it and it is investigated, results and outcomes can happen from that."
Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald said he was surprised when the Alberta Seniors deputy minister told the Legislature Public Accounts committee he chairs that there were 22 fatal accidents or serious injuries in provincial care facilities last year and refused to elaborate.
But VanderBurg said Tuesday there was only one death and five serious injuries and they were all attributable to falls.
MacDonald said the protection of Persons In Care legislation doesn't seem to be improving the plight of people in care.
"It's good legislation, but it's obviously not being enforced," he said. "It's necessary. It's needed, but it's frightening that it doesn't seem to be making a difference in the number of allegations or incidents where people have been abused and neglected."
But PC MLA Neil Brown, who introduced the legislation, said it make take some time for the law to show positive benefits.
"I believe the changes we made are working," he said.
Abuse reports, by the numbers:
Founded complaints of abuse of elderly and disabled adult Albertans in provincially funded facilities since 2005:
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 21 2012
Byline: Darcy Henton