By Marjie Lundstrom,
Until he died last month at age 82, Don Esco of Cameron Park had his own way of measuring the passage of time: by the years, months and days since the death of his wife, Johnnie, after a short stay at a Placerville nursing home.
It was never enough, he always said, to settle a civil lawsuit with the El Dorado Care Center in Placerville, which he blamed for his 77-year-old wife’s death in March 2008. No, he said, it was never about the money.
Johnnie’s death, he maintained, was a criminal matter – and the state of California agreed.
Last Thursday – four years, seven months and 24 days after Johnnie Esco died – one of two nurses charged with felony elder abuse in connection with her death pleaded no contest to the charge. Rebecca LeAn Smith, 39, also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the ongoing criminal case against her former nursing supervisor, Donna Darlene Palmer.
While Don Esco did not live long enough to witness Thursday’s development in El Dorado Superior Court, his persistence has made its mark in California.
As the Esco case moves forward – and another high-profile prosecution of nursing home staff continues in Kern County – representatives of Attorney General Kamala D. Harris told The Bee that the state will begin aggressively building more criminal cases statewide.
Harris’ office is forming three specialized teams – one in Sacramento, two in Southern California – to pursue criminal charges against nursing home administrators and employees where deep, systemic problems are suspected.
“Elder abuse is a particularly tragic crime because it targets a beloved population – our aunts and uncles, our parents – at what can be a vulnerable time in their lives,” said Harris in a prepared statement, referring to these crimes as “serious and often hidden.”
“We know abuse of our elders is becoming more pervasive, so we must become more resolute in our protection of them.”
In California and elsewhere, criminal prosecutions of nursing home workers or their employers have been rare, with allegations of abuse or neglect frequently handled in the civil courts.
Harris’ move could potentially reverse a steady decline in recent years in the state’s criminal actions involving elder abuse. In the past decade, criminal elder-abuse complaints filed by California’s Attorney General dropped from 112 in 2002-03 to 60 in 2011-12, state figures show.
Under Harris’ plan, each of the three teams will have an attorney, a nurse and an auditor – plus support from a medical person with a specialty in geriatrics. The teams will develop criminal cases of “systemic abuse” in facilities where patients’ daily activities are overseen, according to Mark Zahner, chief of prosecutions for the AG’s Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse.
Zahner stressed prosecutors aren’t looking for isolated incidents where a low-level employee trips up on the job.