ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — By day, Tanya Lemon was a 35-year-old single mother who took care of her four children. By night, she worked 12-hour shifts as a nurse at a state group home in suburban Syracuse, paid to watch over vulnerable residents as they slept.
That’s also when she got her own sleep, prosecutors say — a routine that led to felony charges when Dennis Dattalo, a 25-year-old disabled man who couldn’t speak, ran low on oxygen while on her watch and later died.
The case has brought renewed attention in New York to the problem of fatigue among health care workers — and in particular highlights the low-paid nurses, aides and others who care for vulnerable people at night, when sleeping can all too often become part of the job.
Nurse Barbara Parsons worked with Lemon at the Briarwood Lane home in DeWitt, making $34,000 a year. Some staff, she said, signed up for extra shifts to get overtime pay and would shave a half-hour off second shifts to avoid rules limiting work hours. Sleeping on night shifts was common knowledge.
“She wasn’t the only one,” Parsons said. “Everybody knew it.”
While health workers who willfully sleep on the job — as opposed to nodding off or making errors because of fatigue — are more often disciplined or terminated, Lemon’s case last spring fired up prosecutors and invigorated a push by regulators in New York.
New York’s Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs, established in mid-2013 with oversight of six state agencies responsible for more than a million people in direct state care or state-funded nonprofits, identified 458 reports alleging abuse or neglect from its first year that cited sleeping on the job. An additional 64 were classified as “significant incidents,” with potential to harm someone’s health, safety or welfare.
The center in December issued guidance to agencies, caregivers and families statewide in the effort to detect and deter the problem.
Statistics on the number of prosecutions of sleeping health workers are scant; several states contacted by The Associated Press said they don’t track such cases. But judging by the number of cases of sleeping in New York and Ohio, the problem is fairly widespread.
In Ohio Last year, the Department of Developmental Disabilities substantiated 88 instances in which paid caregivers slept on the job. Many happened on overnight shifts, when individuals in their care were asleep. No harm came about, and no law enforcement action was taken.
New York’s guidance on the fatigue problem cited five specific cases of developmentally disabled, mentally ill, drug-addicted and juvenile clients in state homes, all considered vulnerable and needing supervision. One had an unattended seizure. Another, with a tendency to choke, was eating alone at night. Others helped themselves to unlocked medications. One ran away. Six were in a vehicle when their caregiver fell asleep and crashed.
Patricia Gunning, the special prosecutor for New York’s Justice Center for disabled people, led the case against Lemon. She draws a sharp distinction between fatigue or nodding off and deliberate sleeping.
“Willful sleeping on the job is something that rises to criminal conduct,” Gunning said. Her office is investigating another possible criminal case. If they can prove supervisors knew about sleeping and looked the other way, at the Briarwood Lane home or any others, they’ll also be prosecuted, she said.
According to authorities, Lemon was supposed to check on Dattalo every two hours to ensure he was getting enough supplemental oxygen from a mask and to keep his airway clear. For eight hours he wasn’t checked, suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation and was taken to a hospital, where he died 14 days later.
Lemon pleaded guilty to felony endangerment of a disabled person, was sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years’ probation, lost her nursing license, and is barred from working with individuals New York considers vulnerable.
Advocates for health workers like Lemon note that they work a tough job at a trying schedule for low pay, and have called for raises for what they say is important and underappreciated work caring for people who can’t care for themselves.
Lemon’s attorney, Jeffrey DeRoberts, said she has taken responsibility and is returning to school to learn to drive a truck, and he also noted case information indicated napping on overnight shifts was “not unusual” at Briarwood Lane.
“She was doing the best she could,” he said.
Report from New York’s Justice Center for the Protection of People with Special Needs:
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