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HighPointe nursing home neglect case closes with last two sentencings

More than nine months has passed since a hidden-camera investigation led to the arrest of 17 workers at a Buffalo nursing home.

It was late April and the employees – a registered nurse, seven licensed practical nurses and nine certified nursing aides – stood accused of neglecting a bedridden man under their care.

One by one, each of those 17 former workers at HighPointe on Michigan pleaded guilty and has been sentenced, ending a story that cast yet another critical spotlight on nursing home care across the region.

“The treatment of the victim in this case was shameful, and I am pleased that those who were responsible have been held accountable,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a recent statement to The Buffalo News.

Initially charged with felony crimes, the defendants ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanors or violations. With one exception, a nursing aide who went to jail for 15 days, each was sentenced to community service.

As part of their sentences, they are required to take part in a “scared straight”-style program intended to educate other nursing home workers. State officials said the 17 will talk about their failure to adequately care for their patient and how that led to their arrest and prosecution.

“They worked in the most difficult, short-staffed unit,” said Charles J. Marchese, a defense lawyer in the case. “It was a very unfortunate situation, which I do not believe had to be handled criminally.”

The allegations against the 17 workers revolved around a single patient, a 56-year-old man suffering from Huntington’s chorea, a neurological disease that left him bedridden and totally dependent on the nursing staff at HighPointe.

With the help of footage that came from a camera hidden in the man’s room, state investigators accused the nurses and nursing aides of ignoring their responsibilities. They said nurses failed to check on him and dispense pain medication, and aides failed to provide incontinent care and give him liquids.

The workers also faced allegations of falsifying documents to conceal their neglect.

Kaleida Health, which runs HighPointe, fired the 17 workers and removed the facility’s director and director of nursing. It also took steps to improve hiring practices and the education and training of workers there.

“As an organization, it is important to note that we took swift and appropriate action," said Kaleida spokesman Michael P. Hughes. “As we move forward now, we can continue to focus on the patients and residents that we serve here at HighPointe on Michigan.”

The convictions began in mid-June when Cynthia Kozlowski, an LPN, became the first defendant to plead guilty to falsifying business records.

Over the next several months, several other LPNs – Shateeka Stevens, Marlene Sims, Jamie Cunningham, Michael Howell and Heidi Bowens – pleaded guilty to the same crime.

Prosecutors also secured plea deals with seven certified nursing aides. Rubetta Harrell, Kenissa Henderson, Mariah Robinson, Margaret Glass, Amanda Stuart, Nicole Baker and Hazell Clegatt pleaded guilty to falsifying business records.

Three other defendants also pleaded guilty, but to different charges. Nursing aide Tiffany Heard-Williams was convicted of a willful violation of health laws, and LPN Rochelle McNeair-Tisdale was convicted of endangering the welfare of an incompetent or physically disabled person.

The last two defendants to take pleas were Natalie Galbo, the only registered nurse charged in the case, and Ruteasha McCray, a nursing aide. They were convicted of disorderly conduct, a violation, and McCray was sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Marchese said the workers took the fall for Kaleida, which failed to provide its staff with the proper training and resources to adequately do its job. He also claims the victim, who has since died due to causes unrelated to the case, did not suffer any kind of physical harm.

“The individual patient suffered no injury,” Marchese said, “and to my knowledge, was never harmed.”