A worker at a Georgia senior care facility used a lit cigarette to burn a woman with dementia on her face and other areas of her body, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Fulton County Superior Court.
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The lawsuit also claims the facility in metro Atlanta initially misled the victim’s son about how the woman was injured, and the family later learned that the abusive caregiver is a convicted felon who is legally barred from being hired to work in a care home.
The allegations underscore the potential risks seniors face in elder care homes across Georgia when a facility fails to properly vet and oversee the staff entrusted to care for vulnerable residents.
Jacquelyn Stafford, 66, stayed at Hapeville Manor in Hapeville, Georgia, for just a week over the New Year’s holiday on respite care because her son, who is her primary caretaker, was leaving town. The facility administrator initially told the son, Travor Moore, that a mark on his mother’s face was a “carpet burn,” the lawsuit says.
After Moore got his mother back home and noticed multiple burns, he confronted the facility and was told that Britney Nichelle Thomas, a nurse aide, had been fired for burning Stafford with cigarettes, according to the lawsuit.
When Thomas was confronted over the incident by the facility administrator Chenevelyn Higgins, Thomas denied the attack and became angry and critical of Stafford, according to a Hapeville police report.
“That lady is hard to deal with, and she is like a vegetable,” Thomas said, according to the report.
Still, Higgins told police she believes Thomas is the one who burned Stafford. Higgins said Thomas was the only worker on the New Year’s Eve overnight shift caring for Stafford and she was the only employee on staff who smoked, the report said.
Higgins declined to comment for this story, referring questions to Hapeville Manor owner Dr. Donovan Christie, who did not return a phone message before deadline. Attempts to reach Thomas were unsuccesful.
The lawsuit alleges that the facility didn’t run a background check on Thomas, as required by state law. Thomas, 32, has prior convictions for aggravated assault (family violence), cruelty to children, terroristic threats and possession of a knife during commission of a felony. Fulton County court records show Thomas was arrested in 2013 on those charges and convicted in January 2016. The lawsuit alleges she also had a felony drug charge on her record.
The incident with Stafford was not the first sign of trouble with Thomas as a caregiver at Hapeville Manor, the lawsuit also alleges. The facility fired her after an earlier misconduct case involving resident neglect, the lawsuit claims. But the facility rehired Thomas, according to the lawsuit, and Stafford was placed under her care during her son's New Year's trip.
Another employee was also fired after the burn allegations came to light. Police records show the other employee created a facility incident report on Jan. 1 that mentions nothing of the burns and claims a bruise on Stafford’s face was from her glasses.“This particular case incensed me,” said Evan W. Jones, the attorney who filed the lawsuit.
Jones said Stafford has Alzheimer’s disease and is a very sweet, gentle person. The facility’s caregiver, he said, “intentionally burns her with a lit cigarette all over her body. Not just one time and on the side of her face. It takes a very depraved person to do that.”
The lawsuit says Stafford also lost 8 pounds during her short stay, becoming dehydrated and malnourished.
Stafford’s son is a math teacher who juggles work and caring for his mother, Jones said. He takes his mother to an adult day care while he’s teaching, he said, and then cares for her himself after work. He quickly noticed something was wrong when he picked her up from the facility after his trip, Jones said, and grew suspicious of the facility’s “carpet burn” explanation. He kept asking questions and took her to the hospital to be examined.
"It was the diligence of a loving son that suspected something very bad had happened to his mom," Jones said. "He knew something was wrong."
Hapeville Manor is a 24-bed personal care home licensed by the state. The Department of Community Health, which is responsible for inspecting such facilities and investigating complaints, has not cited the home for any violations in recent years, according to the agency’s website.