Fusco, Chris, Rackl, Lori, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
Parolees discovered living in nursing homes, residents not told of sex offenders, ex-cons
Next time you visit Grandma at the nursing home, you might want to take a closer look at who's living alongside her.
The Chicago Sun-Times did the equivalent of that through a two-part series in late April revealing that 100 sex offenders and 61 parolees convicted of non-sex crimes were living in nursing homes across Illinois. Other residents and their families were not being told they were a sharing a roof with these excons, and half of the sex offenders were able-bodied men age 50 or younger.
The series generated nearly 200 e-mails, letters and telephone calls, including tips that led to follow-up stories about ex-cons abusing fellow residents in long-term care centers. Those follow-ups not only debunked assertions by some state officials that the ex-cons weren't being problematic, but they also cemented support for legislation that the General Assembly passed to address the problem.
Ex-cons in residence
A tip late last year from Wes Bledsoe, founder of the nursing home watchdog group, A Perfect Cause, sparked the investigation. Illinois ranked among the top three states in terms of sex offenders in nursing homes, based on his analysis comparing nursing home addresses (available from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and/or state health departments) with online state sex offender registries.
Stories about sex offenders in nursing homes had appeared in several metropolitan dailies using A Perfect Cause's statistics, which Bledsoe told us he was in the process of updating. We reasoned, that to do this project right, we would need to look at other ex-cons living in nursing homes. It seemed unfair to single out sex offenders and ignore murderers, robbers and others convicted of violent crimes.
Given other issues on our plates - Rackl, a health reporter, was working on a series about sex on college campuses; Fusco's main beat is state government- we moved slowly at first. Fusco began seeking documents from the state corrections department through the Freedom of Information Act regarding parolees in nursing homes. Rackl began combing through state health department disciplinary reports to look for evidence of sex offenders abusing residents. She found one such report, which eventually became the lead on the first-day story.
The project sat largely dormant until late March. Then, a suburban newspaper, the Daily Southtown, began carrying stories about a suburb's efforts to shut down a nursing home we knew was housing several sex offenders. This got us working hard, and we finished the series less than a month later.
Bledsoe's updated list of sex offenders in nursing homes - online at aperfectcause.org - contained about 80 Illinois names. But when we ran the addresses of the nursing homes he checked, we found that many of those sex offenders had moved out and others had moved in.
We contacted an Illinois nursing home watchdog group, Citizens for Better Care, and learned some nursing homes weren't included on Bledsoe's original list. We ran them, and the number of offenders began increasing.
Beyond that, we also noticed the label "NURS" - for nursing home - appearing on some listings in the sex-offender registry maintained by the Illinois State Police (www.isp.state.il.us/sor/frames.htm). We asked the state to search the database for "NURS," which turned up more sex offenders.
The "NURS" tag proved a hiccup at first. We learned that it was up to the local law enforcement official inputting the information into the sexoffender database to decide what was a nursing home and what wasn't.
Further reporting told us that some of these "NURS" homes were "supportive-living centers for seniors" that didn't provide medical care but still operated largely like nursing homes. So we included them, noting in the story that our list included "nursing homes, other long-term care centers and supportive living centers throughout Illinois. …