Coronavirus Seniors Sick and Abandoned— Accountability Under the Law?

Coronavirus Seniors Sick and Abandoned— Accountability Under the Law?

S.E. Willams | Contributor


Reflecting on the relocation of residents at the Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Riverside, former California Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown reminded that there are legal ramifications for abandoning senior care patients. “There are laws against this,” she declared adamantly.

Brown pointed to legislative efforts not only during her own tenure in state government, but also protections enshrined in law before and since, focused on assuring seniors, who rely on staff—including medical professionals—owners and administrators in care facilities, are protected. This of course, includes not abandoning them.

Under law, abandonment is defined as “the desertion or willful forsaking of an elder—anyone 65 years of age or older—or a dependent adult, by anyone having care or custody of that person under circumstance in which a reasonable person would continue to provide care and custody.”

As the community works to piece together what happened at the Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, after 34 patients and five staff tested positive for COVID-19, all but one employee abandoned their jobs, leaving 84 elderly, sick patients without support, many are beginning to question who will be held accountable.

Although what happened at this facility, which led to such aberrant results, are yet to be fully explored and revealed, Californians have seen similarly sad scenarios play out before.

In 2013, the State of California and Alameda County were considered jointly responsible when residents of an assisted living center—also with a troubled history—were abandoned after the state ordered the facility shuttered. Both the owner and administrator walked away leaving only the cook and janitor to care for the 14 seniors left behind. They eventually called 9-1-1 for assistance. The owner and administrator were ultimately charged with several felonies.

More recent incidents occurred during the wildfires of 2017, when seniors at two Santa Rosa assisted living facilities were abandoned. According to the Department of Social Services, “as many as 20 frail and elderly residents might have died had family members not arrived to rescue them,” before one of the care centers burned to the ground.

These incidents led to legislation authored by state Senator Bill Dodd, D-Napa, who noted when it was signed into law last June how the measure stood for the principle that as citizens, “We must always meet our obligations to seniors especially in times of emergencies. Simply leaving them to fend for themselves in the face of disaster is unacceptable.”

The bill, SB 314, added “abandonment” to the state’s list of offenses now eligible for enhanced civil penalties under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act.

Social media is ripe with criticism of the employees who did not report to work, for abandoning sick and elderly clients at Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing, while others addressed the dilemmas faced by health care employees during these dangerous days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this point it is unclear what, if any, communications took place between administrators and employees regarding conditions at the facility. Were the administrators advised of employee concerns in advance?

In a Facebook post yesterday, K. Quinn wrote, “No gloves . . . Asking a CNA [Certified Nursing Assistant] to wear homemade masks . . . No PPE. . . some of this fault must fall on the facts of no resources to protect health care workers. Like asking a fireman to walk into and put out a fire with his street clothes and no protection. Impossible. What these nurses did is abandonment! They are in serious trouble for their actions. But, with employees getting infected and your administrator telling you to wear a napkin on your face with this lethal virus is just as criminal. N95 masks are only for licensed nurses, RN, LVN—if they even have any.”

In a similar post, Barbara Block wrote, “Must have been overwhelming for the nurses to care for so many very sick people with this incredibly contagious disease [COVID-19]. They were in over their heads. And, no Personal Protection Equipment available to use on the job. The management was responsible to help supply the nurses with the right equipment. The care facilities are dangerous places for patients and for staff to be living.”

Brown, who also serves as a Commissioner on California’s Commission on Aging, observed there is something wrong with a system that allows this. As a longtime, vocal advocate for the protection and rights of seniors however, Brown also expressed sensitivity for the dangers employees of care facilities are exposed to when COVID-19 positive patients are housed in their places of employment noting,  “These people could go home and take the illness to their families.”

At this time, it is unknown what, if any charges, may be brought in this case.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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