Housekeeper's record was at hand

Two elderly victims of fatal beatings at Galloway Ridge retirement community in Pittsboro could have learned -- on their own or with the facility's help -- about the criminal background of the woman charged in their deaths, human services officials and Galloway's executive director said.

Jason Crunk, executive director of Galloway Ridge, said Thursday that policies there called for Galloway to run a criminal check on any employees hired separately by residents. Margaret Murta, 92, and Mary Corcoran, 82, died after an attack Dec. 5 in their Galloway apartment. A former employee of the women, Barbara T. Clark, 41, of Pittsboro has been charged in the deaths.

"The residents can hire people to do work for them," Crunk said. "There is a policy we have that we screen them, but they did not inform us that they had this relationship."

Galloway Ridge held a memorial service for the women Thursday, Crunk said. He said residents and staff were still in shock and receiving grief counseling over the deaths. The facility has not questioned its security arrangements, Crunk said, because Murta and Corcoran had invited Clark to work for them in their home, which is part of the facility's independent living section.

"There wasn't any problem with our security," he said. "There wasn't anything we could do. They were both social workers, and they took matters into their own hands."

Clark, the suspect, had an earlier felony conviction that appears on the state's Correction Department site and on the Health Care Personnel Registry, which are available for public use.

While it's still rare for abuse against older and disabled people to end in homicide, physical abuse, neglect and financial exploitation happen far too often, social service professionals, prosecutors and advocates say. Police contend that Clark attacked the women with a cane and pepper spray during an argument over checks the women thought had been stolen.

State adult protective services figures for the most recent fiscal year show more than 6,700 complaints and about 1,300 substantiated cases -- or 3.5 instances a day -- of abuse and neglect of disabled and older adults.

And that number probably understates the problem. Many cases go unreported, and North Carolina law requires adult protective services workers to provide services only after victims have already been abused, neglected or exploited -- not when they are threatened.

"Most people expect that you will prevent the harm from happening," said Craig Burrus, supervisor for the service in Wake County.

Suzanne Merrill, chief of the state's adult services section, said county investigators confirmed mistreatment in 2,500 cases during the past fiscal year. That counts the cases in which workers confirm abuse, neglect or exploitation but find the situation resolved through family action, death or other cause.

The numbers of adult cases are fewer than the roughly 24,500 annually substantiated cases of child abuse, but there are more than twice as many children as adults older than 65 in the state.

And a widely cited academic study says that cases of abuse, neglect, self-neglect and exploitation occur up to five times more often than they are reported.

"Where you have elderly people that have a very small network of people that they depend on, information just doesn't go outside that network," said Jim Woodall, district attorney for Orange and Chatham counties. "In this case, there was a very quick response. Sometimes there are cases with the elderly where it's some time before you find out that crime or abuse has taken place."

Merrill served on a state task force that developed revisions to the state's adult protective services law aimed at giving abuse victims more protection. But a bill to fund a test of the new approach stalled in the past legislative session. Proposed changes would have given workers more scope to intervene earlier to prevent abuse, more leeway to provide referrals to other agencies and increased awareness of elder abuse.

Such an approach might have helped in the Galloway Ridge cases. Under the proposed law, someone facing a similar situation would be able to call adult protective services with their concerns that the confrontation might turn ugly, Merrill said.

"At a minimum, we would do some more interviewing, get some more facts, offer some support over the phone," she said. "I believe we would go out ... we would try to understand what's going on with the housekeeper. Could we get another housekeeper?"

Instead, Murta and Corcoran apparently called a neighbor in as a witness. She, too, was beaten.

(Staff writer Sam Spies contributed to this report.)