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7 Eyewitness News Investigates: Criminal Caregivers

NF nursing home hires criminals; oversight lacks
7 Eyewitness News Investigates: Criminal Caregivers
Posted at 6:10 PM, Feb 03, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-03 20:54:42-05

In November, a 7 Eyewitness News Investigation revealed allegations of neglect at the Niagara Rehab nursing home in Niagara Falls. Our exclusive report led the State Attorney General’s Office to launch a criminal investigation. You also told us to keep digging. This is what we found.

 

 

Burglary. 

Grand Theft.

DWI.

These are among the crimes committed by past and current employees of Niagara Rehab – some while they worked there, others before they were even hired.  

Court documents show former nursing aide Amanda Kissell was convicted of driving while ability impaired in 2003 – a year before she was hired at Niagara Rehab. 

In 2015, the State Attorney General’s Office says she began forging checks tied to an account that belonged to an elderly woman in her care. They say she racked up more than $3,500 in charges for pizza, cell phone usage and satellite TV.

Kissell was fired and her case is now before a grand jury. She said the entire incident is a misunderstanding, stating in a brief telephone interview that the patient befriended her and asked her to cash checks for her because the woman was unable to sign her name. She said she looks forward to having her day in court. 

Patricia Howard, who worked housekeeping at Niagara Rehab, admitted to profiting from a similar scheme.

A man who was suffering from heart failure gave her $75 and asked her to deposit the money with his debit card a year ago. 

Instead, she admitted to taking the card and withdrawing more than $700. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor petit larceny and was fired.

 

After brush with the law, they became supervisors

Lynne Haseley and Susan Rucci weren't fired after their criminal offenses – they were hired. 

The two worked at the old Fairchild Manor in Lewiston then landed jobs at Niagara Rehab a few years ago. 

In 2009, police said they found Rucci and Haseley cruising the streets of the Cataract City under the influence of drugs and alcohol. 

Police Report: "I took a lot of my Zanac (sic) and some Soma before I started drinking. It's my day off, so I wanted to get ripped up..."

Authorities say Haseley, who went on to become Niagara Rehab's assistant director of nursing, stumbled out of the vehicle smelling like alcohol and slurring her speech.

She failed her roadside sobriety tests because police say she was nearly too drunk to stand.

"I drank too much alcohol…" Haseley told police, according to the report. "I took some of Susan's pills and they really f----- me up."

Police found those pills – along with what they suspected to be marijuana – in a pill bottle in Rucci's hand. Rucci was passed out in the front seat of the car, police reports state.

Police said after Rucci woke up, she told them: "I took a lot of my Zanac and some Soma before I started drinking. It's my day off so I wanted to get ripped up with my friend Lynne."

The whole time, police said Rucci's 3-year-old son was asleep in the back seat of the car. Rucci disputes the police account and says she never uttered those words. 

But less than two years later, she was convicted of misdemeanor DWI for a different incident – one that, again, involved a car crash, signs of intoxication, and her child in the car. 

The last incident took place six months before she was hired at Niagara Rehab. 

She says the nursing home never even asked her about her criminal past. 

Neither woman still works for Niagara Rehab.

Nine felonies, jail time, then a job offer

But that’s not the case with Christina Newman, a registered nurse who previously worked at the old Saint Francis nursing home in Williamsville and Elderwood in Amherst.

Niagara Rehab hired Newman last year as an RN supervisor – in charge of 145 patients -- despite the fact that she’s a nine-time felon.

In 1999, when she was 17 years old, Newman pleaded guilty to three felony counts of grand theft and burglary in the state of Florida -- and six more felonies in Georgia.

She was sentenced to more than a year in jail and five years probation, which court documents show she violated in 2003.

Despite this extensive criminal history, New York State certified Newman as a registered nurse six years ago.

 
Police Reports

New York does not require background checks

New York is one of only six states that does not require all of its nurses to undergo criminal background checks.

"It's a loophole in the system. Other states have such legislation. That's not the case here in New York State,” said Florina Altshiler, a Buffalo attorney who has extensive experience in medical malpractice. “Nurses do not go through background checks in order to get a nursing license."

That means it's up to individual nursing homes – there are more than 70 in Western New York -- to decide whether to pay for background checks. 

“Nurses, and especially people working in nursing home facilities, are working with some of the most vulnerable of our population,” Altshiler said. “We’re talking about elderly people, people with dementia, people with memory issues, people who are most susceptible to economic crimes and to physical abuse, and people who cannot necessarily speak up for themselves because they’re in this vulnerable position in a nursing home.”

The nursing home checks to make sure its job applicants have active medical licenses, a spokesman said. It also runs their names through an online database of people barred from working at Medicare facilities, he said. 

"Nurses, and especially people working in nursing home facilities, are working with some of the most vulnerable of our population"

But while Niagara Rehab takes some steps to screen its staff before hiring, the spokesman acknowledged that it does not perform criminal background checks on everyone who applies for a job. He also acknowledged that Niagara Rehab does not test them for drug use when they are hired. 

Niagara Rehab officials, like most of the health care workers in this story, declined a request for an on-camera interview. 

But Tonya Smith says she wishes she would have known about their criminal records before her Uncle Jerry’s controversial death at the nursing home two months ago.

“They should want to have a background check, because who knows? It could be their mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle in the nursing home,” Smith said. “You should have a background (check) period for any kind of job dealing with any kind of medication and elderly people. Like my sister said earlier, they're vulnerable, so they could take advantage of these people, and I don't appreciate that.”

Charlie Specht

This series started with a tip from a 7 Eyewitness News viewer. It has led to two government investigations and prompted action from a U.S. Congressman to improve the nursing home. 

WKBW photojournalist Jeff Wick edited this piece for television. WKBW photojournalists Bohdan Petriv and David Morales shot video for this series.

Have a tip? Contact Charlie Specht at Charlie.Specht@wkbw.com.