Georgia Fails To Halt Nurse Imposters
By Craig Schneider
Weak laws and lax enforcement have allowed people who impersonate nurses to work with patients in Georgia, often with little chance of getting caught or punished. Records show some of these impostors have worked as nurses for long periods before being discovered, only to slink away and resurface elsewhere. The result: vulnerable patients at risk.
The issue attracted national attention just weeks ago with the arrest of a woman who had been in charge of the care of Bobbi Kristina Brown at a Gwinnett County hospice. Police said Taiwo Sobamowo wasn't licensed to to work as a nurse and also had a criminal record, yet she had still managed to obtain jobs at multiple health care facilities in Georgia and beyond.
Sobamowo herself fled Georgia when she felt the heat, but police tracked her to North Carolina and arrested her.
"We are very concerned about it. There need to be consequences. They need to be criminally prosecuted," said Debbie Bartlett who has pressed for reforms. She added, "It's not a rare occurrence around the country."
It remains to be seen whether Sobamowo's arrest represents more attention to this issue, or just the extra effort that can attend a high-profile case. Brown was the daughter of singers Bobby Brown and the late Whitney Houston.
To delve into the world of nurse impostors, state records were reviewed, and state and national nursing officials, lawmakers, care providers, prosecutors and law enforcement were interviewed. A clear pattern of bureaucratic inaction across several agencies became very apparent.
But the crime of posing as a nursing without a license is only a misdemeanor in Georgia, which diminishes its priority among law enforcement agencies.
State officials argue several of Georgia's shortcomings are being addressed. Within the past year or so, the state has added more money and manpower for nursing board investigations. It also passed a "mandated reporting" law requiring facilities to report nurse impostors and other violations of the state nursing practice code.
"We've been extremely diligent in improving our practices," said nursing board president Brenda Rowe. "Our mission is to protect the citizens of Georgia."
'Not Being Reported'
How often this crime occurs is unclear. About 80 cases have been reported over the past 15 months to the database operated by The National Council of State Boards of Nursing. In Georgia, the state nursing board has received only 11 complaints since 2011.
"It's not being reported," said Sue Tedford, executive director of the Arkansas Board of Nursing, who has lectured on the topic at multi-state seminars. Some facilities don't report out of fear of embarrassment or government scrutiny. "Every state is dealing with this. ... These people can kill patients."
While Bartlett believes the great majority of health care facilities properly vet nurse candidates, she suspects some places don't do their due diligence. When impostors have been discovered, some places simply sent them away.
"They would just flip from employer to employer," she said.
Sobamowo was hired September of 2014 by Homestead Hospice of Roswell, but police say Homestead failed to see red flags on her application and did not thoroughly vet her. She was earning a salary of $75,000 a year.
Homestead provides nurses to numerous facilities. During her time here, Sobamowo worked in Roswell, Alpharetta, Duluth, Cumming and Marietta, according to Forsyth County Sheriff Det. Jeffrey Roe.
Duluth Police Det. Fran Foster said Homestead should have pegged her as a phony from the start. Sobamowo signed several different names on the initial employment paperwork, she said.
Sobamowo, 32, followed a script used by many nurse impostors, stealing the license number of a legitimate nurse. She found the nursing license of a person with a similar first name but different last name, then told employers that was her maiden name, police said.
Homestead has said it performed a background check, but Foster said her investigation found that the employer did not complete a background check until almost a year after hiring Sobamowo. And that was only after a whistle-blower came forward, she said.
"All they had to do was Google her, and it would have been over," Foster said.
That's because Sobamowo had previously been caught posing as a nurse in Washington D.C. and Maryland. In Washington, she was caught in 2013 when a background check revealed convictions in Minnesota and a warrant for her arrest. The nursing board there issued a cease and desist, and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
By then, she was gone.
Inside The Hospice
At Peachtree Christian Hospice in Duluth, Sobamowo was directly responsible for Brown's care. She administered about 20 medications, including narcotics, intravenously into the comatose woman who had been found face-down in a bathtub. She also called in re-orders for medications.
Sobamowo counseled the family on her condition. And when Brown died at the age of 22 on July 26, Sobamowo called in the religious grief counselor, Foster said.
Authorities have not identified a link between Sobamowo's care and Brown's death. Their investigation continues.
Sobamowo's attitude raised concerns among her Duluth co-workers.
"She was mean to these women," Foster said. "They started to think there was something not right about her, something they couldn't get their heads around."
In July, a whistle-blower called the Forsyth police, which alerted Duluth police in October.
When Foster contacted Sobamowo and asked her to come in for questioning, Sobamowo fled to North Carolina. Foster discovered she had family there and alerted local police officials, who arrested her. She faces misdemeanor charges of practicing nursing without a license as well as felony charges of identity theft and forgery.
"This kind of stuff, it scares the hell out of you," Foster said.
'A Lax State'
Georgia provides fertile ground for nurse impostors, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
She believes that the vast majority of state's 158,000 nurses are legitimate and that this crime is rare. But she noted that the state has a shortage of nurses and the nursing board has a history of backlogged investigations.
"They know this is a lax state," Unterman said.
An investigation in 2013 found that the state took an average of 15 months to complete nursing investigations such as theft, abuse and drug addiction. The Office of the Georgia Secretary of State investigates complaints and allegations submitted to all of the state's licensing boards, including nursing.
Georgia has several safeguards in place to ensure nurses are licensed. The state Board of Nursing performs a state and national criminal background check on people applying for a license. Health care employers are supposed to check a prospective employee against an online state database of nurses with legitimate licenses. Weeks ago, Georgia set up a website identifying known nursing frauds in the state.
Nurse impostors can have some health care training, but many want to skip the time and expense of earning a license, said Tedford of the Arkansas nursing board. Others want access to drugs, for themselves or for sale.
"Impostors are very manipulative people," said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. "They can talk their way out of questionable circumstances. They know how the system operates and how to manipulate it."
Keenan added that as long as the crime remains a misdemeanor, "it will get very little traction with law enforcement and prosecutors."
Articles in this issue:
- Georgia Fails To Halt Nurse Imposters
- Why Is The US Perpetually Short of Nurses?
- Mothering My Dying Friend
- Mens Lib! Only 9 Percent Of Nurses Are Men
- New Diabetic Cases, At Long Last, Begin To Fall In the US
- Stronger Economy Drives More Nursing Turnover, Higher Wages
- Nurse Practitioners Changed U.S. Health Care
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