By Kati Weis

(CBS4) – Following several CBS4 Investigations into neglect and abuse allegations at assisted living facilities in Colorado during the pandemic, a state legislator is looking to make regulation changes that could better hold those facilities accountable. Some families of those allegedly neglected at assisted living facilities believe the regulation changes could make a critical difference.

(credit: CBS)

“I think there’s a lot of ways that we could do a better job of holding assisted living facilities accountable,” Sen. Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge) told CBS4.

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Danielson is exploring a bill that would make several changes to improve Colorado’s assisted living facilities. She’s hoping to introduce the bill in next year’s session.

Assisted Living vs. Nursing Home: There’s A Big Difference

Assisted living facilities are much different than nursing homes, in terms of regulations. Nursing homes are considered skilled nursing facilities, which require administrators and nursing staff to be licensed.

However, while the facilities themselves are licensed, administrators and owners of assisted living facilities are not required to have a license, and there are often not licensed nurses on site, mainly unlicensed caregivers.

“After speaking with experts, it’s come to my attention that assisted living administrators do not have to have a license to be in charge of one of these facilities. I think that’s something that needs to change,” Danielson said.

If owners and administrators of assisted living facilities were required to be licensed, it would be harder for them to open a new facility if their previous business is shut down.

For example, CBS4 reported in early May the Triangle Cross Ranch in Galeton was shut down for allegedly withholding food from, punishing and humiliating residents.

Triangle Cross Ranch in Galeton (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

Lawyers for the ranch said the staff has “done nothing wrong.”

If the administrator of the ranch wanted to open a new assisted living facility, she would have the right to do so.

Kristin Linton’s sister, Karen Peterson, was one of the residents at the ranch that was allegedly mistreated.

Karen Peterson and Kristin Linton (credit: Kristin Linton)

“I definitely think that there should be some health care experience of some sort,” Linton said. “Definitely a training program for caregivers.”

Since 2013, the state has shut down 27 assisted living facilities. That’s an average of about three shutdowns a year.

Maximum Fines For Assisted Living Center Violations Only $2,000 A Year

Those are not the only regulations Danielson would like to examine. She’s also concerned about the maximum fines the state can impose on assisted living facilities.

Each year, the state health department can only fine assisted living centers $2,000 for violations. Nursing homes can be fined tens of thousands of dollars, because they face federal regulations.

“That seems like a drop in the bucket,” Danielson said of the assisted living fines.

Sylvia Torralba’s mom, Julia Gutierrez, was neglected at the Almost Like Home assisted living facility in Arvada back in October 2020, according to the state health department.

Julia Gutierrez (credit: Linda Gonzalez)

Public records show staff at the facility left her mother in a recliner for up to 24 hours at a time – causing her to develop a severe bedsore that, according to the state, staff failed to properly treat in a timely fashion.

Her mom died at home days later.

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The facility was fined $1,000.

Almost Like Home (credit: Kati Weis, CBS4)

“I think the fines are just ridiculous, $1,000 for my mom’s death,” Torralba said. “That’s less than somebody’s paycheck every two weeks or something… maybe they would care more if there were higher fines, and there were stricter policies.”

Former Caregiver Opens Up: ‘A Lot Of Deaths Could Have Been Prevented’

A former employee at Almost Like Home, who wanted to remain anonymous, tells CBS4 the unlicensed caregivers at assisted living facilities are often still in high school and have little training. At Almost Like Home, the former employee said caregivers were only given two days of training before working on their own.

“There needs to be classes taken,” the former employee said.

The employee also said because of the lack of training and accountability, and due to understaffing issues, residents were not properly fed, changed or turned.

“I think a lot of deaths could have been prevented, and I think a lot of residents could have been more cared for and had a prolonged life,” the former employee said.

Because assisted living facilities are not considered “skilled” nursing facilities, there are also limits on the kind of care those facilities can provide.

For example, in November 2020 Melisa Goodard says Almost Like Home called her to say her mom, Judith McCurry, fell from a two-foot bed.

But the injuries her mom sustained led Goodard to believe there’s more to the story.

“You can’t get that damaged from two feet, you just can’t,” Melisa said.

Judith McCurry’s injuries in November 2020 (credit: Melisa Goodard)

Her mom died a few months later at a different care home. The state health department is still investigating.

“She lost her first tooth five days after the accident and then she proceeded to lose six more teeth after that, which caused so much pain she gave up eating and starved to death,” Goodard said.

According to police, Almost Like Home said it wasn’t allowed to put bed rails on the bed to prevent her mom from falling out because it’s not a skilled nursing facility.

The law says assisted living facilities are not allowed to accept or house residents that need more assistance that is beyond their scope of care.

Almost Like Home has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Sen. Danielson says she’s hoping next year’s bill could provide more resources for better enforcement of current regulations.

“I know that there are thousands of Colorado families who depend on assisted living centers for the care of their loved ones, and a lot of them are high quality, wonderful care,” Danielson said. “However, there are serious problems that exist, and I think it’s our duty and my job in the legislature, to take care of these folks in a way that they deserve.”

Torralba said she’s grateful Danielson is looking to make changes.

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“It makes me hopeful that somebody is willing to do something about it to look at it and to make changes real changes for them,” Torralba said. “It is too late for our mothers, but there are all those that are left there suffering. We don’t know what’s going on there for them and we want to help them.”

Kati Weis