VOORHEES, N.J. - Startling allegations of abuse inside a New Jersey nursing home have family members up in arms.
FOX 29 Investigates has the pictures and talks to loved ones. Our Jeff Cole investigates these serious claims of neglect and a cover-up.
Nikki Thompson says the time she spends with her 9 year old are moments of pure joy. But the reason she's home is not.
Thompson, a licensed practical nurse, says she's been fired, forced out of her job helping the frail elderly.
"Did you like the work?" Cole asked.
"I loved it," Thompson said. Asked why, she said, "It meant a lot to me to be a part of their lives."
Thompson worked at the Voorhees Center nursing home in South Jersey. She was a charge nurse on the day shift of a long-term care unit.
She says the charge nurse makes sure things run smoothly.
Thompson claims her eight-year career at Voorhees unraveled, and she got an anonymous threat that read "snitches get stitches" when she blew the whistle on what she says are the serious problems which led to an image. It’s a picture of an elderly woman with dementia tied to her wheelchair.
"She just – excuse me, I'm sorry. When I think about it, I get a little bit more upset," an emotional Thompson said.
Records show it happened inside the nursing home on the evening of Aug. 16 of this year. Thompson says the picture was taken by a concerned worker.
FOX 29 Investigates has been told the woman, a hospice patient, was tied to the chair with a bed sheet knotted in the back. The top she was wearing had been pulled down in an apparent attempt to hide the restraint.
"I guess because they felt like they couldn't deal with her, they tied her to a wheelchair," Thompson said.
She says the woman had fallen during the day, and she had ordered one-on-one staff coverage for her in the evening.
That night at home she says she got a text from an upset nurse's aide.
"The resident was tied up, and this person was very worried," Thompson said. "She didn't know what to do. She was worried and she was upset."
The patient's name is Eleanor Hallowell. The 85-year-old had been a resident at the Voorhees Center for four years.
FOX 29 has spoken with her legal guardian, Betty Monroe, of South Carolina, who says she was angry to learn Hallowell had been tied down, and she sued to protect her.
Court documents show Hallowell's attorney has moved in Superior Court in Camden to secure all documents and evidence in the case.
The attorney writes that Hallowell was: "abused and neglected by being tied to her wheelchair with bed sheets." He also accuses staff and management of engaging in a "cover up" by "changing of records."
"Some days we come and she's just out of it," said Peggy Miller, who is Hallowell's sister-in-law.
We met her and Eleanor's brother after they had just visited her at the center.
"She tries to get out of bed a lot," Miller said. "And I don't want her to hurt herself, but it is illegal without a doctor's note or order, then it's against the law."
Legal guardian Betty Monroe says there was no doctor's approval for restraint at that time. She also says the Voorhees Center never came clean.
"The family needed to know what happened," Thompson said,
"Did the facility tell the family, from what you know?" Cole asked.
"No, they did not," Thompson said.
"They did not tell the family?" Cole asked.
"No they did not," Thompson said. Asked who told the family a loved one had been tied down, she answered, "I did."
Outside the Voorhees Center, a woman approached. And when Cole identified himself, she put her hand on the camera.
"What are you doing?" Cole asked.
"I hope you are not filming me," the woman said.
"Well, you haven't told me who you are," Cole said.
"I am Mary Donaldson. I work here," the woman answered.
She's the head of human resources at the center, where we tried to get some answers. We brought along the pictures of Hallowell.
"This is what we are trying to figure out," Cole said. "Why would a patient ever be restrained in a facility like this?"
"Tell him to stop filming me," Donaldson said.
"Well, you came out to us, and I had my camera rolling," Cole noted.
As Donaldson walked off, Cole asked, "Ma'am, can you send out the director of nursing or someone else for us so we can get some answers here?"
A man told us he's the director of maintenance and security.
"Have you ever seen these?" Cole asked him, showing the pictures.
"Nope," the man said.
"Does this happen in there?" Cole followed up.
"Nope, no, absolutely not. I've been here 30 years," he said.
"It doesn't happen?" Cole asked. When the man said it doesn't, Cole said, "It did happen. They were taken inside this place."
"Don't know anything about it," the man said.
"They were tying down a patient?" Cole asked.
"They don't do that," he said.
But state health records tell a different story.
According to New Jersey Department of Health and federal inspection records obtained by FOX 29 under the Open Records Act, the conditions at the Voorhees Center were found to constitute "immediate jeopardy to resident health and safety." Documents show Voorhees was cited for restraining Eleanor Hallowell with a bed sheet.
Hallowell's family is not alone in its concern.
Mildred Medina says her 73-year-old father, Jose Medina, who has Alzheimer's, was photographed wearing women's pajamas inside the nursing home.
"So, you were embarrassed for him?" Cole asked.
"Yeah, I was embarrassed, you know, thinking even if his mind wasn't right, other people can see him," Medina said.
Again, concerned workers made sure she got the picture.
Medina says her dad also suffers from a disorder called PICA, which makes him eat anything he can stuff into his mouth, including clothing.
She says staff claims the one-piece-suit was to stop that, but she believes the Center should have purchased clothing specifically designed for people with the eating disorder.
Health inspection records show the Voorhees Center was cited for an incident which sent Jose Medina to the hospital for surgery.
"It was actually a plant for an aquarium that was found in his body," his daughter said.
"A piece of hard plastic plant from an aquarium was inside your dad's body?" Cole asked.
"It was inside of him. He had eaten it, and no one was there to stop him," Medina said.
Voorhees Center management refused to answer our specific questions about care. In a statement, its spokesperson wrote: "We are committed to providing quality care to our patients and residents and take any concerns regarding care very seriously."
The statement added that when a concern is raised, "We immediately conduct a thorough investigation," and, "When warranted, we also report issues to the New Jersey Department of Health."
Hallowell's family said they would like to take her out of Voorhees, but other nursing homes have rejected her.
"She's getting thinner all the time," said her sister-in-law, Miller. "She's not able to feed herself. And we hear she does, but I don't believe it."
As for Thompson, she's looking for work.
"I was called into the administrator's office, and I was told that he felt as though I was not happy there, and they were not happy with me," Thompson said.
"Do you think they fired you because you were aware of the restraint of that patient and you contacted the family?" Cole asked.
"Yes," Thompson said.
"You think this was retribution?" Cole followed up.
"Yes," she said.
Thompson has now sued the Voorhees Center and its owner, Genesis HealthCare.
That finding of immediate jeopardy to resident safety was lifted the same day it was imposed as quick changes were made.
Voorhees says the woman who restrained Hallowell no longer works there.
And Hallowell died last week, Cole reported.