Wheelchairs parked at the Fresh River Healthcare in East Windsor. A 50-year-old resident in 2021 locked a staff member in his room and tried to force her to perform oral sex, according to police. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

The state Senate late Wednesday passed a bill to establish a task force to study the placement of registered sex offenders in long-term care facilities, following an incident last year in which a Massachusetts man allegedly sexually assaulted a nurse at an East Windsor facility.

The task force is a compromise after the initial bill, proposed by State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, drew heated opposition at a public hearing. The initial bill would have required long-term care facilities to check if prospective residents have a criminal history or are on the sex offender registry before they are admitted.

The task force will study “the impacts of residents with such status for both their own and environmental health and well-being,” Anwar said in a statement. Anwar’s district includes the Fresh River Healthcare Center, where the incident occurred last May.

“After the serious incident that occurred in an East Windsor nursing home last year, it is imperative that we take action to prevent and better understand the consequences of sex offenders in long-term care homes,” Anwar said.

“There is a loophole in state law where registered sex offenders’ status is not reported if they are transferred to state long-term care facilities from other states. This is the first step toward closing this loophole and making these facilities safe for all residing there.”

Last May, Miguel Lopez, a convicted rapist and a registered sex offender in Massachusetts with a warrant out for his arrest at the time, allegedly locked a female employee in his room at the nursing home and tried to force her to perform oral sex.

Fresh River officials sent Lopez back to Massachusetts the same day that the incident occurred. He was eventually arrested on a warrant by East Windsor police and charged with attempted first-degree sexual assault, third-degree sexual assault and first-degree unlawful restraint. He is being held on $300,000 bail. His next court appearance is April 29.

Lopez wasn’t known to local police at the time he was admitted to Fresh River Healthcare because of a loophole in Connecticut’s sex offender laws, which do not require nursing home operators to inform state police when they admit a registered sex offender from another state into one of their facilities.

The law currently places the burden on sex offenders themselves to register, but Anwar’s initial bill would hold the nursing home providers more accountable by requiring them to determine if any potential resident is a registered sex offender by seeking a criminal background check through the state Department of Public Health.

Anwar’s initial bill would have barred long-term care facilities from admitting people with a “disqualifying offense” without a waiver. The disqualifying offenses listed in the bill ranged from assault, rape and kidnapping to burglary, criminal mischief and trespassing.

But Anwar’s proposal drew criticism from several different organizations as a knee-jerk reaction to one incident.

Mag Morelli, president of LeadingAge Connecticut, an association representing not-for-profit provider organizations serving older adults, told the Public Health Committee that “from an implementation perspective, this proposal raises numerous concerns.” 

“It appears that the facility will be barred from admitting an applicant until it receives notification of the background check from DPH. It is unclear how long an available bed might need to be held open for the duration of a background check,” Morelli said.

“Moreover, many applicants on waiting lists will need to be re-checked each time a bed becomes available, given that a prior background check only remains effective for one month. While there are exceptions for short term rehab admissions, or for conditional admissions of 60 days or less, these situations will be affected by the discharge and eviction limitations discussed above,” Morelli said.

It was Morelli who initially suggested the idea of a work group or task force to evaluate and address the concerns.

At one point during the public hearing on the original bill, Anwar and Cindy Prizio, executive director One Standard of Justice, an advocate for restorative justice practices and a critic of the sex offender registry, got into a heated argument after she called it “a public policy disaster in the making” during her testimony.

“Please don’t allow one sensational crime to turn good intentions into bad policy,” Prizio said. “We all want to protect our vulnerable populations. OSJ stands ready to provide help to the committee in developing an effective solution.”

Prizio said there’s no “need to create a new bill every time there is an isolated high-profile incident” and that the bill is unfair to a class of people who already have had their rights “sucked dry by the system.”

Prizio endorsed Morelli’s suggestion of convening a work group to study the issue.

The new version of the bill orders that the task force will study the “means of ensuring resident and employee health and safety with a resident appearing in state or national sex offender databases, including the impact they would have on the facility environment; the impact of offender registry databases on individuals; and any necessary legislative changes to ensure health and safety of all parties involved.”

The task force would need to release a report to the General Assembly by the end of 2022.

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.