Seven years of negotiations, calls to legislators and even roadside protests have come to an end for Maureen Persi, who has been fighting day-in and day-out for stiffer laws to protect the elderly since her mother died Aug. 4, 2010 after allegedly being abused by the staff of a local nursing facility.
Her mother, Peggy Marzolla, who worked until age 81 for the Paterson, N.J. police department, died 65 days later after being rushed to Ocean Medical Center. When Persi arrived at the hospital after receiving a call from the staff at Brandywine Senior Living in Brick, she found her mother covered in bruises, with a broken eye socket, broken cheekbone, broken jaw, broken wrist and welts on her back.
Staff at the nursing facility told Persi her mother had slipped on powder in a bathroom and fell backward, causing her injuries. But Persi never believed the explanation. A lawsuit filed by Persi against Brandywine was settled out of court.
Persi, after seeing her mother’s injuries, said she was shocked at how the elderly could slip through the cracks in New Jersey. Instead of the local police department investigating charges of abuse or assault, elderly people in nursing homes and other medical facilities fell under the jurisdiction of the little-known Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, which Persi said put the case on a long waiting list after she reported what happened to her mother.
The eventual investigation by the Ombudsman’s office did not resut in any criminal charges being filed in the case, nor any sanctions against Brandywine. What Persi saw as the office’s backlogs and overtaxed staff led her to fight for reforms.
“Abuse is abuse, whether it be domestic violence, a child or an elderly person,” said Persi, who began fighting for a change in state law to allow police and local authorities to investigate cases of potential abuse. “I am not a person who can deal easily with things that are wrong in society.”
Persi, a retired teacher and elementary school principal who is a longtime resident of Ortley Beach, faced hurdles from legislators and a powerful lobbying group that represents nursing facilities. Peggy’s Law, which is based on legislation enacted in many other states, including Florida, even had its fines decreased for violators after state Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), a medical doctor, objected to the original penalties, Persi said.
But on Monday, Gov. Chris Christie signed the reform act into law, named for Peggy Marzolla.
Peggy’s Law, sponsored by Sen. James Holzapfel (R-Ocean) requires any caretaker, social worker, physician, nurse or other staff member of a care facility who has “reasonable cause to suspect that an elderly person is being abused or exploited,” to report it to local law enforcement. It also requires them to report such incidents to the Ombudsman of the Institutionalized Elderly within certain periods of time depending on the kind of abuse.
“When families put their loved ones in the care of a nursing home or other assisted living facility, they expect that they’ll be treated properly and with respect,” Holzapfel said. “If an employee of one of these homes even has the slightest suspicion that something might be awry, it should be their duty to report it.”
Before Monday, the state’s laws governing elder abuse cases had not been updated since 1987.
Persi, her mother’s only child, said now that Peggy’s Law has been enacted, she will continue fighting against elder abuse, including what she sees as an upcoming battle to maintain a family’s right to sue facilities in civil court for abuse cases.
“My mother would be so proud, but she’d be laughing,” Persi said. “She knew how I could hound someone to death. My mom would be saying, ‘better them than me that you hounded!'”