A nurse’s aide who was captured on surveillance video mistreating an elderly nursing home resident has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery.
Police initially charged Doris Burke, 36, with felony aggravated battery to a person older than 60 and felony abuse of a long-term healthcare facility resident. Burke was employed as a certified nurse’s aide at Pleasant View Luther, a senior living facility in Ottawa.
But last week, Burke’s defense team and the LaSalle County State’s Attorney’s Office struck a plea deal, much to the disappointment of family members of Francesco Chiurato, who was 88 when he died last fall.
“I would (tell my father) I was sorry. I put him (at Pleasant View) thinking I was doing the best thing for him,” said Francesco’s son John Chiurato.
Chiurato set up a hidden, motion-detection camera in his father’s room when he began complaining about an employee last June. Chiurato said what he discovered was “constant neglect or physical battery.”
“She would make him clean himself up after accidents,” Chiurato described. “There’s one situation where she ran up to him and put her middle finger in his face…you could see her cleaning his genital area and then forcing the same rag into his face.”
A police report also detailed one incident when “Francesco fell back into the bed from a standing position, and his head went back and over the other side of the bed,” and the certified nurse’s aide did not help him up.
According to the police report, in another instance, while the camera’s view is blocked, the employee’s “right arm jabs in a punching motion toward Francesco. He is heard moaning immediately after the movement.”
Burke initially told police in interviews that Francesco could “be aggressive and has tried kicking her before.” Burke denied to police that she ever threw anything at him or hit him.
From the beginning, the video presented legal challenges.
Defense attorney Darrell Siegler argued to suppress the evidence because it violated a recent and untested law called the Illinois Authorized Electronic Monitoring in Long-Term Care Facilities Act, which went into effect in January 2016.
The law requires that any long-term care facility resident who wishes to install a recording device must first notify the facility in writing to protect patient privacy.
Seigler also argued that under the law, video and audio could only be admitted as evidence in a trial “if the contents of the recording have not been edited or artificially enhanced.”
The video that Chiurato had turned over to police had been edited. Chiurato said the camera installed in his father’s room recorded continuously if triggered for more than a month. He said he ended up with more than 100 hours of footage but only turned over relevant clips to police.
Chiurato also said he was not aware of the stipulations of notifying the facility as required under the Electronic Monitoring Act, adding that he “wanted to catch the person in the act.”
“If someone is really intent on harming someone, they’ll just take them to another part of the building and do it there,” Chiurato said.
Despite the obstacles, LaSalle County State’s Attorney Karen Donnelly announced she would pursue the felony charges when she took office earlier this year.
However, after months of court proceedings, her office decided to offer a misdemeanor plea agreement, citing the hurdles this case presented.
“We’ve done some research and felt that we could get the video evidence in (at trial), but that’s just the first step,” said Donnelly. “Once the evidence comes in, is there enough to convict?”
After looking at the entirety of the video tapes in context, Donnelly said “there just wasn’t enough I felt there to sustain a guilty verdict.”
As part of the plea, Burke is ordered to 100 hours of community service, a $1,500 fine and a letter of apology to Francesco’s family. She will be ineligible to work in the healthcare field for at least one year, possibly longer.
According to Donnelly, Burke may apply in a year for a waiver to regain eligibility to work as a CNA, however, that waiver would need to be granted by a committee. The Illinois Department of Public Health may pursue administrative action against Burke that would bar her from ever working in the healthcare industry. An IDPH spokesperson declined to comment on this specific case.
Seigler declined to comment on details of the plea agreement.
“There were sound reasons on both sides to reach the negotiated plea agreement,” Seigler said.
Chiurato said the law failed to do its job of protecting elderly residents. He wants to see the statute clarified.
“Had this law never been written, we’d be in a better spot,” Chiurato said.
Donnelly said families who wish to set up cameras in long-term care facilities should familiarize themselves with state laws.
“If I was to do this with my grandmother when she was in a nursing home, I would have followed the law exactly. I would’ve asked the nursing home about this,” Donnelly said. “Once (employees) know a camera is in the room, the CNA’s could be on their best behavior, but that’s not a bad thing.”
Pleasant View declined comment in NBC 5 Investigates’ first report, citing the pending court case. On Monday, however, a facility spokesperson said, “In this unfortunate case, the former colleague was placed on administrative leave as soon as there was indication of concern. From that point, the former colleague was never again employed by Pleasant View.”
Pleasant View Luther Nursing Home has been fined by the Illinois Department of Health for “failing to protect residents from verbal and physical abuse by staff.”
The 90-bed facility was initially penalized $25,000, but after a hearing with IDPH, both parties entered into a consent agreement, in which Pleasant View paid $13,750 in fines.