Maureen Marzolla-Persi got a call late one night in February 2010 that no one should ever have to get.
Her 93-year-old mother, Peggy, an Alzheimer's Disease patient at a nursing facility in Brick, had been rushed to the hospital with injuries across her body. When she and her husband arrived at Ocean Medical Center from their home in Ortley Beach, however, an already terrifying situation instantly got even worse.
"The doctors and medical personnel who came into her room said, 'Well, what do you think really happened?'" Persi recalled.
The woman who didn't retire from her job at the Paterson, N.J. police department until age 81 had sustained a broken eye socket, a broken cheekbone, a broken jaw, a broken wrist, a badly bruised elbow, a gash on her left shin and welts on her back.
Peggy Marzolla died 65 days after she was taken to the hospital that night.
Persi said staff members at Brandywine Senior Living on Jack Martin Blvd. told her that her mother had slipped on some powder in a bathroom and fallen backward. She never believed the facility's explanation.
For Persi, trying to determine if her mother had been abused by staff at the facility was next to impossible, she said. Cases of elder abuse in New Jersey are referred to the little-known Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly, which Persi said put her on a waiting list after she reported what she suspected was abuse against her mother.
The eventual investigation by the Ombudsman's office did not resut in any criminal charges in the Peggy Marzolla case, nor any sanctions against Brandywine. But the experience of the process led Persi to mount a campaign in her mother's name to stiffen state laws against elder abuse.
While both state and federal laws dictate that elder abuse constituting a crime must be reported to local law enforcement by facility staff, it first must be confirmed that a crime may have been committed before such reporting becomes mandatory – a determination that could be made by employees of the same facility where the alleged abuse took place.
Peggy's Law, named for Marzolla and initially sponsored by former state Senator Andrew Ciesla (R-Ocean) would require virtually any health care facility employee to immediately notify local law enforcement if they have "reasonable cause to suspect or believe that an institutionalized elderly person is being or has been abused or exploited."
The proposal's mandatory reporting requirements are similar to those currently in place in Florida.
Peggy's Law goes too far, however, some say.
John Indyk, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Health Care Association of New Jersey, an industry group that represents health care facilities, said Peggy's Law could mark the start of an era of "the boy who cried wolf" with regard to calls to law enforcement. Indyk said Peggy's Law calls for mandatory, immediate reporting of the "abuse or exploitation" of residents, which could lead to nuisance calls to police departments.
"It says 'abused or exploited,' but there's no mention of a crime," said Indyk.
"If you have a dementia patient who says every day, 'my watch is missing, my watch is missing,' you'd have to call the police about that," he said. "It could turn out he doesn't even have a watch."
Indyk said current laws are sufficient to protect elderly patients, and facility staff are competent to determine whether a crime may have been committed before notifying authorities.
"If, in fact, something goes wrong, they get fined" for failing to report a crime, said Indyk.
But Persi, who has lobbied on behalf of Peggy's Law before legislative committees in Trenton, maintains that police should be called to investigate potential cases of abuse before anyone else. One of the most important aspects of Peggy's Law, she said, is that medical personnel from outside a nursing facility, such as EMTs and hospital staff, would also be compelled to immediately report potential elder abuse.
"I think that it would put a different focus on the next group of people, like the EMTs who would see her right after injuries occurred, or the admitting person at the emergency room," said Persi.
The bill has local support, including a unanimous vote of support from the Brick Township Council at a recent meeting.
Since Ciesla's retirement, Senator James Holzapfel has taken on sponsorship of Peggy's Law in the Senate and Assembly members David Wolfe and Caroline Cassagrande in that chamber.
There has been little action on the bill, however, and it has yet to be released from committee for a full vote in either chamber.
"It's not a sexy topic," said Persi. "It doesn't draw a lot of attention."
Persi said though there were never any criminal charges filed in her mother's case, a second investigation ordered by the governor's office identified three adults who were in her mother's room about the time when sustained her injuries.
Persi is now pursuing a civil case against Brandywine and those three individual staff members. The staff members are all being represented by Brandywine's attorney, legal filings reviewed by Patch show. Depositions in the case are scheduled to take place next month.
A staff member at Brandywine's corporate office in Mount Laurel returned an initial call from Patch requesting an interview on the case, but did not respond to later inquiries to schedule that interview.
Persi has recently resorted to staging solo protests outside Brandywine's building on Jack Martin Blvd., where she said she receives occasional jeers from staff but occasional words of support from passersby.
"I will not give up, I will not let it go," she said.