News

Killer nurse may be in jail, but nursing home residents not safer, inquiry hears

By Jonathan Sher, The London Free Press

WOODSTOCK  - 

In the town where registered nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer murdered seven residents under her care at a long-term care home, a provincial commission launched a public inquiry Wednesday that drew tears from the families of victims and warnings from insiders who say many more residents have been placed in harm’s way.

“My heart was broken when I heard these stories,” said Karen Devolin of Tillsonburg, who fought tears as she spoke to show support for the families of seven victims murdered in Woodstock’s Caressant Care nursing home and an eighth at London’s Meadow Park care home.

The public participation meeting, one of two Wednesday in Woodstock, with a third scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at downtown London’s DoubleTree hotel, was the first chance for the head of the public inquiry, Justice Eileen Gillese, to address families under the glare of news cameras.

“I want to acknowledge how difficult it must be for everyone in the community to deal with the knowledge that Elizabeth Wettlaufer committed these serious offences while working here as a trusted caregiver and registered nurse,” said Gillese, a judge on Ontario’s highest court and a former dean of Western University’s law school. “My team and I are sincerely sorry for your suffering.”

Wettlaufer was fired from Caressant Care after medication-related errors, but landed another job within a month at Meadow Park, where she gave a lethal dose of insulin to her eighth and final victim murder victim; four others survived her efforts to kill them.

Sentenced in June to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years, the worst serial killer in Canadian health-care history pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder, four of attempted murder and two of aggravated assault, all involving vulnerable people in her care between 2007 and 2014.

But while Wettlaufer’s victims drew a spotlight and a public inquiry, families and nursing home workers say residents are harmed daily in a system that lacks resources.

Residents in nursing homes only get between 1.3 hours and 1.9 hours of care a day, when there is a need of at least 4.8 hours daily, said Melissa Holden a personal support worker at Woodingford Lodge and a vice-president of the Unifor union’s Local 636

“The needs are not met. Not ever,” she told the commission, which includes Gillese and four lawyers. Until resources are increased, she said, “Abuses will continue to increase.”

While Ontario’s Health Ministry bars new admissions to nursing homes with the most egregious violations, officials allow residents to stay, which puts them at risk, said Janice Duffy, whose father is in a nursing home in London.

“If this was daycare or even a dog care centre, those children and those puppies would be removed or there would be a public outcry,” Duffy told the commission.

This week’s meetings were to solicit public views, but a commission lawyer warned not to cite facts related to how Wettlaufer got away with murder for so long. That will be the subject of the formal part of the inquiry not expected to start until June, Gillese said.

That makes its timing just before the next scheduled provincial election, with Ontarians going to the polls no later than the first week of June.

A year and a half ago, Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found backlogged inspections of long-term care homes for complaints and so-called “critical incidents” — things that must be reported immediately, ranging from neglect and abuse to improper care and unexpected deaths — had doubled during 15 months.

Two years earlier, the province had been found to be breaking its own nursing home inspection law. Lysyk noted the ministry in charge responded by hiring 100 inspectors and doing complete inspections of all homes.

More than 70,000 people live in Ontario’s more than 600 long-term care homes.

jsher@postmedia.com