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Elder care reports must be publicized

Few choices can be as wrenching as shopping for a care facility for an aging parent. The homes are expensive — but, if resources are available, who balks when it's a mom or a dad with increasing needs? Worse, the emotional challenge of the elder in moving to an institutional setting can be exhausting, even traumatic. What families typically count on throughout, however, is that the facility being considered reliably delivers the kind of care and attention that makes life worth living: safe, prompt, courteous, complete and at times fun.

That's why it's sickening to read that Sue Crawford's 93-year-old mother, Marian Ewins, was twice found by Crawford to be sitting in her own feces while a resident at a memory care facility in Tigard and in need of hospitalization. Or that a caregiver at a McMinnville assisted living and retirement center beat a resident's head against the bathroom wall. Or that a resident of a Eugene elder care facility apparently had a stroke yet waited for more than four hours before an ambulance was called.

None of the above events is disputed. Each was verified upon investigation. Yet none was reported publicly on a state-managed website designed to help Oregonians search for care facilities or monitor any from among the state's more than 600 facilities in which loved ones rise every day for a life worth living.

In an extensive report published last week, Fedor Zarkhin and Lynne Terry of The Oregonian/OregonLive show that more than 60 percent of substantiated complaints against care centers in Oregon since 2005 — nearly 8,000 of them — go unseen and unknown to Oregonians searching the Oregon Department of Human Services website. This is a cruel failure, perhaps cruelest for its irony: The website was launched in 2008 in an effort to make transparent the complaint histories and performance record of elder care facilities. It followed a drive by Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley as a member of the Oregon House of Representatives to publish such records online.

Zarkhin and Terry quote Ashley Carson Cottingham, since 2015 the director of the state's Aging and People with Disabilities program, as saying of the website: "It's a mess." That's true. The gaps in information owe to decisions made early on about certain classes of information to be withheld from the website, and also to mistakes in the way state workers classified complaints, Zarkhin and Terry wrote.

But elder abuse, whether from mixed up medications or neglect or outright physical violence, is equal opportunity when it comes to the historical record. The unpublished records of substantiated complaints, now available at OregonLive, should be promptly posted where they always belonged: on the state's website. And a good first step, until all records are available and current, would be to immediately post an explicit notice on the website saying the information provided by the website is incomplete.

In response to the work of the Oregonian/OregonLive reporters, state officials say the website will be replaced and fulfill the mission of making complete information readily available to Oregonians. Good. But that could take years owing to competing, expensive software projects within the agency.

Few priorities rise as this one does. Certainly there are corollary issues suggested by the reporters' findings, among them staffing and management practices within care facilities that leave such dark trails of abuse.

But for now the records, like an old person's life even in twilight, need fresh light. They should be made public by the state, with retooled practices to ensure they are current and useful to families trying to make what are often once-in-a-lifetime decisions.