Nearly four years after a disabled woman in a vegetative state gave birth to a baby at a Hacienda HealthCare facility, a House committee is touting its efforts to ensure that Arizona’s vulnerable adults will be protected.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers assembled the Ad Hoc Committee on the Abuse and Neglect of Vulnerable Adults in 2019 shortly after and in response to the Hacienda HealthCare incident. It followed international media coverage and condemnation after an investigation also revealed that the father of the woman’s child, Nathan Sutherland, was a nurse at that facility who had raped her repeatedly and likely for many years.
Bowers, a conservative Republican, made the rare decision to appoint a Democrat in Assistant House Minority Leader Jennifer Longdon as chair of the committee. Longdon said that Bowers made this decision because of her experience dealing with abuse and neglect – an issue that she targeted as part of her campaign.
Longdon was paralyzed and put into a coma after being the victim of a random act of gun violence 18 years ago. During her long road to recovery, Longdon was sexually assaulted by one of her nurses.
“This is an issue that I know firsthand,” she said. “I’ve got skin in the game, right? I have a lot of friends in the disabled community who spend various amounts of time in and out of skilled nursing facilities, assisted living, etc. And so, I know from their experiences to mine that it’s not anecdotal but consistent.”
She is joined by Republican Rep. Tim Dunn, R-Yuma, who she appointed as her vice-chairman. Together they meet with representatives from agencies across the state, including the Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Arizona AARP, Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, Arizona Bridge to Independent Living, Arizona Department of Economic Security, Arizona Center for Disability Law, Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) and Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council.
During these meetings, members play an active role in trying to accommodate 11 recommendations that they created to best protect Arizona’s vulnerable adults. These guidelines include a broad range of initiatives ranging from supporting a stakeholder-driven action plan for the Arizona Department of Health Services and Department of Economic Security to training and education for facilities, caregivers, residents and family members on how to report abuse and neglect
“It was apparent in the testimony going through that there were holes and communication gaps, not intentional, not statutory, but just gaps in delivering the health care,” Dunn said. “I think that was just why some of those recommendations were there. And I believe those organizations started working immediately on repairing some of those pitfalls.”
The committee was formed shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey created and appointed Arizona’s Abuse & Neglect Prevention Task Force, which serves a purpose similar to the ad hoc committee but from Arizona’s executive branch. Unlike the ad hoc committee, however, the governor’s task force provides broader initiatives, such as a statewide public awareness campaign, multi-agency coordination, resources on managing caregiver stress and training for vulnerable individuals and families.
The two committees have a working relationship. One recommendation of the ad hoc committee stipulates that it should support recommendations of the task force related to disclosure and investigation training signage and a trauma-forced approach. Jon Meyers, executive director at Arizona Developmental Disabilities Planning Council, said he sees the committee as the legislative extension of the task force initiative. He is a member of both.
“The ad hoc committee that was assembled by Speaker Bowers in 2019 was intended, I believe, as a complementary effort to the work of the task force,” Meyers said. “It was intended to identify some very immediate ways that the Legislature itself could address these issues, and that the Legislature itself could take action that would make an immediate impact on the lives of at-risk adults.”
Carmen Green Smith, a committee member who serves as deputy director for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing, touted the work that the committee has done to achieve the recommendations, as well as what has been done to improve the work of state agencies in their efforts to help protect vulnerable adults.
“We’re available to go into these facilities and meet with their leadership and talk with them about communication, accessibility resources that are available to serve persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind, as well,” Green Smith said. “I’m sure the other agencies represented on the committee provide very similar types of services as far as educating service providers about serving their particular area of interest.”
She also shared her opinion that the committee and Legislature had more work to do in terms of advocating for actual policies. Green Smith said that she had not yet seen momentum in terms of policy-related discussions but that “there is still time for those changes to be made.”
Longdon pushed back on Green Smith’s assertion, mentioning the fact that the committee had already achieved one of their recommendations by passing a law that created a statutory definition for emotional abuse. It was a bill that Longdon introduced herself, which ensures that the emotional abuse of an adult will be treated as a crime.
Longdon said the next step for the committee will be to make good on recommendation No. 4, which would be to start an audit of Arizona Adult Protective Services. Following that, the committee will look to achieve recommendation No. 1 by funding a program to oversee vulnerable adults.
“We need data to make good policy decisions,” Longdon said. “We can’t build policy on anecdotes, but that audit should be starting anytime soon. Then we just finally got the funding to run a pilot program that will probably run through the Arizona Center of Disability Law to monitor very closely abuse and neglect. So, I think we’ve made significant progress. It’s been slow, but it’s been steady.”
Given that there will be a new House speaker next year, it is not a certainty that the committee will be reappointed. However, both Dunn and Longdon expressed confidence that the next speaker, whoever it is, will reappoint the committee. They touted it as a bipartisan issue where there is mutual trust among legislators.
“Whenever our colleagues look at this committee, the dedication we’ve had for the last three years and working on, on policies and coming together and advocating for it, they’re like, you know, (Rep. Longdon and I) trust each other, and then we can trust them,” Dunn said.