Emily Mongan

At a facility designed specifically for seniors who have been abused, it’s understandable for some to fear what might happen should a resident’s abuser come in. But a far more likely concern weighed on the mind of the team at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention.

“When we started the shelter, a lot of the questions I would get were, ‘Is this safe for our residents and staff, or are the perpetrators of elder abuse going to be coming in and harming our residents?’” shared Joy Solomon, director and managing attorney, at a session at LeadingAge’s annual meeting Tuesday. “What I said to people was I think you have to worry much more about the boyfriend of your nurse’s aide coming into our facility with a weapon.”

It’s not a far-fetched worry to have — spouses or ex-partners were responsible for the deaths of 321 women and 38 men at their workplaces between 1997 and 2009, Solomon said. Domestic abuse also can impact a workplace from the outside, with victims reporting higher rates of lost productivity, absenteeism and difficulty focusing on work due to their abuse. In nursing homes, domestic violence has led to headline-grabbing tragedies, including the case of two employees and a police officer shot to death in May by the estranged boyfriend of a nurse.

Concern over how to not only protect residents but also the people who care for them spurred the center and the Hebrew Home at Riverdale to create its own domestic violence prevention and intervention program. “It’s Your Call” offers up resources and support to employees facing abuse.

“For us in an organization that’s running 24/7, it’s really important to be thinking about what’s going on at work,” Solomon said.

She made it clear that the program isn’t an advocate for the victim, or there to tell them exactly what steps to take next. Instead, all employees are trained to recognize the warning signs of abuse, with a select few receiving additional training to be “lighthouses” who can steer victims toward resources.

It’s Your Call also added workplace policies on domestic violence emphasizing support and accommodations — not penalties — for employees whose work may be suffering as a result of abuse.

Gabriel Oberfield, who has helped other facilities implement the program through the Continuing Care Leadership Coalition, said that getting the program in place isn’t always easy. Some facilities face barriers when it comes to leadership buy-in, or the time required to develop the new policies. Another frequently observed barrier is discomfort with discussing abuse, Oberfield noted, whether it’s due to victims’ embarrassment, fear of retaliation from the abuser, or concerns over losing their jobs.

But that barrier needs to be crossed, according to Ellen Burke, vice president of human resources at RiverSpring Health, which operates the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. Some department heads within the organization pushed back against the program at first, believing domestic violence to be an issue that wasn’t prevalent, or one relegated to a certain race or class, she explained.

“I know that’s not true,” Burke said. She shared her own story of surviving domestic abuse — one she hadn’t previously disclosed publicly — during the LeadingAge session.

“I was lucky to make it out of this situation at a time when resources like the [It’s Your Call] program didn’t exist,” Burke said. “The program is needed and should be replicated at every facility.”

For facilities that haven’t yet taken steps to address domestic violence, the time to take the issue on is now, Solomon added.

“When you think about the consequences of violence at a healthcare facility if someone does come on campus, what does that look like when we have to protect residents and their family that are there?” Solomon said. “It seems pretty clear and obvious that we need to have a policy within our organizations that looks at what are we doing, how are we supporting, how are we paying attention. It’s something that we really can’t ignore, and something that we really need to do something about.”

Follow Staff Writer Emily Mongan @emmongan.