Blind, elderly and sexually abused. Would you tell someone?

Kathryn Marro, of Brunswick, holds a picture of her grandfather.

It doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. If you’re abused in any way, the person in whom you confide should be there to support you and report the crime, not express disbelief.

Yet disbelief is what happens time after time.

Kathryn Marro, 40, of Brunswick knows because it happened to her grandfather, who is now deceased. In 2006, while still recuperating from breaking his hip, he lived in a Brunswick senior care center in a special section for people with memory loss.

At age 89, he suffered dementia, was deaf in one ear and was legally blind. But from the time he moved in, he told Marro that a burly man was sexually abusing him.

Marro said she and her family assumed his stories were caused by his dementia, and they tried to assure him that he was safe and in a caring environment. But he continued to describe the abuse in detail.

Though Marro’s mother did not believe the abuse was happening, she wanted to alleviate his fears — whether they were real or not. She told the nurse manager about the situation and asked that no males care for him. She believed her complaint had been honored.

Marro learned later that the abuser continued to care for her grandfather. She also learned that had the nurse manager checked her grandfather’s personal care records, she would have seen warning signs.

Marro’s grandfather was not incontinent, but the male CNA was changing his sheets when he didn’t need to. Even though the abuser might have been scheduled to work in another part of the building, he came to her grandfather’s wing in the middle of the night to shave or bathe him.

Marro’s grandfather also confided in another employee at the center, but nothing was done.

“He was doing his job in trying to tell people this was happening, and the nurse manager didn’t look into it, didn’t research it. Those red flags were there,” Marro said.

The abuse likely would have continued if a female employee hadn’t walked into Marro’s grandfather’s room late one night and found the male employee sexually abusing him. The discovery happened about six months after he first moved into the facility.

Still, though the female employee told her supervisor immediately on a Friday, no one called police until the weekend had passed; the crime scene had been cleaned up.

Marro said she knows people can be trained for a situation and then not react properly, but too much went wrong.

“It was devastating,” she said.

The abuser was barred from the facility, and the locks were changed. A psychologist monitored Marro’s grandfather. The abuser was charged with unlawful sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a dependent person. He pleaded guilty and served jail time.

But then Marro’s family got another surprise. Though the employee was convicted of sexually abusing a man who was as dependent as a child, the employee would not be added to the Maine sex offender registry because his victim was an adult.

Marro’s grandfather never knew of the changes in Maine law that would come about because of the abuse. He died in 2008. But his granddaughter fought for him in his memory and encouraged lawmakers to pass legislation to add people to the sex offender registry if they abuse dependent and incapacitated persons.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the law last summer, and it took effect in October.

Marro is the director of early childhood services at Woodford’s Family Services, and she serves as vice president of the Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine board. In April, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, named Marro as the recipient of the 2012 Visionary Voice Award.

She knows the difficult situation people face when deciding whether to report potential abuse, but things have to change, she said. There is a reason why someone — whether it is an elderly person or a child — tells you about abuse, and the person must be taken seriously.

Even though her grandfather suffered from dementia, it doesn’t diminish the abuse and it doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t have, at the very least, looked for the warning signs. Marro described her grandfather as a family man. He had two daughters, three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“He was absolutely the person who would do whatever you needed. He was there for me my whole life,” she said.

People might not want to discuss abuse, particularly sexual assault, but it happens every day. When someone is brave enough to tell you what has happened, listen. Tell police. Research shows abusers rarely act only once.

There is a phone number for people to call if they are unsure where to turn. The statewide sexual assault crisis and support line is 800-871-7741.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.