Twice convicted of molesting children in Lake County, Thomas Kolzedid his time in prison before being paroled to a nursing home in June2003 because of heart and kidney problems.
A caseworker assumed he wouldn't be a threat to elderly residentsat Bement Health Care Center in central Illinois. After all, his pastsex crimes involved children, not adults.
Less than six months later, a nurse aide spotted Kolze in the TVroom rubbing an Alzheimer's patient's thighs and arms as she sat in awheelchair, according to a state inspection report. Not long after,another employee saw Kolze cheek-to-cheek in the TV room touching thechest of another woman with dementia.
Kolze, now 61, was sent back to prison, but he's out again. He'sone of 100 registered sex offenders living in 54 nursing homes, otherlong-term care facilities and supportive living centers throughoutIllinois, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation has found.
Half of the sex offenders in these homes are age 50 or younger --something that's sounding alarm bells with advocates concerned aboutpatient safety. The youngest is 23.
"There are more young ones in Illinois than in any other stateI've seen," said Wes Bledsoe, founder of A Perfect Cause, a nursinghome watchdog group that has studied the sex-offender issue acrossthe country.
The elderly, disabled or mentally ill residents in these homes --and the family members who visit them -- typically have no ideathey're sharing a roof with convicted sex criminals. The statedoesn't require nursing homes to pass on that information to fellowresidents.
Even the people who run the homes can be in the dark.
"A lot of times we get this person and we don't know they're a sexoffender, so we don't know that there are things we might need to doto ensure the safety of other residents," said Pat Comstock of theIllinois Health Care Association, a trade group whose members includenursing homes.
Anyone can find out if someone is a registered sex offender byrunning the person's name through the state's online sex-offenderdatabase. But that step currently isn't part of the screening fornursing home admissions.
With the help of two patients' rights groups, the Sun-Timescompiled its list by cross-checking the online registry with theaddresses of nursing homes along with board and care facilities.
The newspaper also obtained information showing that 61 paroleesconvicted of non-sex crimes are living among the elderly and ill. Butunlike sex offenders, who are required to annually report wherethey're living to the police for at least 10 years, other parolees'identities aren't known to the public.
Nationally, high-profile horror stories have put the issue of sexoffenders in nursing homes on the front burner. Congress'investigative arm is set to release a report later this year.
Closer to home, some south suburbs are taking extreme steps tofight the practice.
Earlier this month, 10 sex offenders -- two of them allegedly notregistered with the state -- were found to be living at Emerald ParkHealthcare Center in Evergreen Park. Community outrage spurredvillage trustees last week to ban all sex offenders from living inlong-term care facilities within the town's borders. Three dayslater, leaders in nearby Bridgeview took the same step.
State says it screens residents
Some patient advocates say state and county agencies are too quickto turn to nursing homes when they're trying to place sex offenderson parole or probation.
"The state should not be using nursing homes as a dumping ground,"said Wendy Meltzer, staff attorney for Illinois Citizens for BetterCare, a nursing home watchdog group. "You get the sense that thediagnosis was 'needs a roof over head.' "
State officials bristled at the "dumping ground" assertion. Theysay potential nursing home residents are screened to make surethere's a medical justification for placing them. They also note thenumber of sex offenders and parolees in long-term care facilities isminiscule, given that Illinois' nursing home population totals morethan 100,000.
"This is by far a very limited set of cases," said Deanne Benos,assistant director of the Illinois Department of Corrections, one ofthe government agencies that place sex offenders in nursing homes."Certain facilities may have more of an expertise . . . to treat acertain type of individual."
Sex offenders often end up in long-term care facilities afterbeing paroled from state prisons or being placed on probation bycounty judges. Some are referred by state-run mental health centers.And some have simply grown old and need nursing care.
This last group doesn't bother patient advocates as much as theyounger, able-bodied offenders do.
"Sex offenders who are physically mobile and therefore potentiallypose a risk to other residents, to staff, to visitors or visitors'children should not be in nursing homes absent a really compellingreason . . . and a very safe plan for how everybody else will beprotected from them," Meltzer said.
Nursing home industry officials note that many of these youngeroffenders are placed in homes that cater to the mentally ill, notstrictly a geriatric population.
But patient advocates point out that younger offenders can -- anddo -- end up alongside elderly "sitting ducks," especially now thatnursing homes are more likely to take people paid for with public aiddollars to fill a growing number of empty beds. Increasing optionsfor long-term care have taken a toll on homes' bottom lines.
"Yes, we have had reports of it," said Donna Ginther, aSpringfield lobbyist for AARP. "We generally hear of them on the backend, after there's been a re-offense."
Members of AARP, the nursing home industry and state agencies lastyear began looking at ways to better handle the sex offender andparolee population in nursing homes. Several ideas are being weighed.
A key issue is that criminal history isn't part of the screeningprocess for placing people in nursing homes. One proposal is to runall applicants' names through the sex offender database beforeadmitting them to a facility.
The state also could require nursing homes to notify otherresidents and their families if a sex offender is on the premises.
Legislation pending in the General Assembly could factor in, too.A bill sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Chicago) would limitone sex offender to one address, though it's unclear whether it wouldapply to nursing homes if passed.
One nursing home owner said it's not unheard of for groupsattempting to place sex offenders in nursing homes to "try to pullthe wool over your eyes."
"I had a case five years ago where a state institution hid the[psychiatric] records of someone who was potentially violent," saidMelvin Siegel, owner of several Downstate nursing homes and boardmember of the Illinois Nursing Home Administrators Association. "Itwas a state institution that wanted to empty the bed."
Siegel would not identify which one.
"That's what you always have to watch for, whether they're comingfrom a hospital or a jail," he said. "You have to be very cautiousabout any potential admission because of the possibility that theymay be hiding things just to get rid of the patient."
Siegel said nursing homes view sex offenders as "an opportunityand a problem."
"The opportunity is you get to fill your beds," he said. "But youmay be taking on a problem that is not appropriate for your presentpatient mix. Some [nursing homes] are greedy."
Problems with sex offenders in nursing homes have cropped upacross the country.
The Minnesota attorney general last year sued a Minneapolisnursing home after allegations that two sex offenders in the facilityhad abused other residents.
In a Florida long-term care facility in 2002, Virginia Thurston,77, was raped in her nursing home bed by an 83-year-old convicted sexoffender living in the same home. He propped his wheelchair againstthe door so employees couldn't get in.
"I put her in a nursing home to keep her safe, and my worst fearwas realized," said the woman's daughter, Sandra Banning, 56, ofJacksonville, Fla.
Banning is now working with state lawmakers who are calling forcriminal background checks on all nursing home applicants.
"Being a sexual offender is an illness," she said. "I don't thinkthey should be placed somewhere with vulnerable adults who are justlike children."
Neither does Bledsoe of A Perfect Cause.
"When you put predators in with the prey," he said, "somebody'sgoing to get bit."
Giving people a second chance
But outside of the 2003 incident involving Kolze at the centralIllinois nursing home in Bement, there is scant evidence of sexoffenders committing crimes in nursing homes and similar facilitieshere. Advocates say that doesn't mean there isn't a problem. Abuse innursing homes is notoriously underreported, according to acongressional report in 2002.
A consortium of nursing homes called Sharon Health Care in Peoriahouses eight sex offenders -- the most in the state. An administratorof one of the Sharon homes said the two sex offenders in his facilityare so old and medically compromised, they're not a threat.
Nonetheless, he doesn't share their criminal history with otherresidents -- a practice many administrators said they follow.
"I'm big on second chances," said Randall Bauer, administrator atSharon Health Care Pines. "A lot of times individuals can berehabilitated. And if their issues are entirely medical now, whyimpact their life negatively?"
In other nursing homes, however, some offenders are getting outinto the community and getting into trouble with the law.
Karey D. Wallace, for example, was living at the Wilson Carenursing home on Chicago's North Side when police arrested him inOctober for trying to rob a nearby video store. The 35-year-old isnow back in prison.
Larry Oliver, 50, was living at the California Gardens nursinghome near Cook County Jail when he was arrested a little over a yearago for drug possession. He's back in prison, too.
At Emerald Park Healthcare Center in Evergreen Park -- which hadthe distinction of having the most sex offenders in the state, 10,until a police sweep earlier this month -- only two of the offendersremain. Most of the others were shipped to different nursing homes.After the sweep, one was arrested for hanging out too close to aschool when he went out for a supervised walk with his fellowresidents.
Emerald Park's administrator did not return telephone calls aboutthe new ban on sex offenders living in the village's long-term carefacilities.
While the ban clearly is directed at Emerald Park, it also couldaffect Kolze, the sex offender who was sent back to prison fortouching the elderly women at the Bement nursing home in 2003.Suffering from a stroke and a host of other medical problems, he'snow living in Genesis Place, a 16-bed "supportive living" home forseniors also in Evergreen Park.
Village President James Sexton recently said Kolze would need tomove out because of the ban, but Genesis Place's director said Fridayshe believes the home doesn't fit the village's definition of a long-term care facility and that Kolze will be able to stay. Sextoncouldn't be reached to respond.
Kolze came to Genesis Place from Graham Correctional Center inSeptember. He's been a model resident "who's made mistakes just likeyou and I," said Valencia Whitely, executive director ofInterdependent Living Solutions, which operates Genesis Place.
In a telephone interview, Kolze denied ever sexually abusinganybody in Bement.
"I didn't touch the old woman they said I touched. I was beingnice to her and I held her hand," he said. "She couldn't talk and shehad a feeding tube in her stomach, but she had a nice smile. . . .There was no crime."
Does a sex offender live near you?
To search the state's sex offender registry, log on towww.isp.state.il.us/sor/.
Let us know what you think about this two-part series on sexoffenders and parolees in nursing homes. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com