GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Maureen Persi, a former Glen Ridge teacher and principal, is to be inducted in the Italian American National Hall of Fame.
As a teacher, Persi received numerous honors, including three times being named to a who’s who list in American education. She served as principal of both Linden and Forest avenue schools, 1991-98, and at Linden until 2004 at which time she retired.
But her greatest contribution may not be to Glen Ridge students, but to seniors citizens living in NJ nursing facilities. Persi lobbied state legislatures for nearly seven years to permit local police to be notified if abuse, neglect or exploitation occurred to residents in senior housing facilities. The result of her effort was a bill referred to as “Peggy’s Law,” named after Persi’s mother, Peggy Marzolla. It was signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie on Aug. 7, 2017.
Persi had retired to care for her mother and eventually placed her in what she thought was a good, assisted-living facility in Brick Township. But on Feb. 2, 2010, her mother sustained a broken eye socket, cheekbone, jaw and wrist, and had gashes on her shin. Persi was told she slipped on baby powder, a claim Persi did not believe. Her mother died Aug. 8, 2010, at the age of 94.
She subsequently learned that local police departments were not permitted to investigate acts of alleged abuse in senior facilities and that these complaints were handled by the Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly. This office did investigate her mother’s injuries. The only faults it determined were that the facility failed to ice the injuries, calm her mother, provide water, and call an ambulance. But Persi believed what really happened was being covered up.
She began to picket the senior facility and created a Facebook page. She pressed for legislation. A turning point for her advocacy, she said, came on May 11, 2017. After she gave testimony before the NJ Assembly Health Committee, Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce, R-District 26, stood up and said, “I also had my mother abused in a nursing home.” Persi said DeCroce suggested they work together and that Peggy’s Law was only the tip of the iceberg.
In a recent telephone interview, Persi said she met with DeCroce on Dec. 12, 2017, and spoke with her about creating a legislative bill for other safety measures in senior facilities. One was that certified nursing assistants receive more training.
“These are the assistants that usually take the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift,” Persi said, “and that’s when things happen. The family isn’t there or the administration.”
Persi said one nurse at the Brick Township facility, while her mother was a resident, also worked at a Wendy’s restaurant. Persi said she wondered, “You work at a Wendy’s and now you work with my mother?”
Persi and DeCroce have also considered having cameras in common areas of the facility.
“You often see aides not working,” she said. “They’re texting on the phone. A camera would keep people on their toes.”
Persi would also like the facility to be required to post signs informing residents, family members and caregivers, what they can do about suspected abuse, neglect or exploitation.
“I wanted a poster on the back of every resident’s door,” she said.
She said Peggy’s Law required posters to inform people that 9-1-1 could be called, but “9-1-1” was typed very small.
“It’s the last thing on the poster,” she said. “They really make you read it.”
The Office of the Ombudsman for the Institutionalized Elderly had has asked Persi to design the poster and she asked Jerry Juzdan, a former art teacher, to help her.
“We submitted it, but the ombudsman didn’t like it because it was too ‘in-your-face,’” she said.
But Persi said that was what is needed.
“We want that poster in everyone’s bedroom so residents and family know what to do,” she said.
In her bill proposal, Persi also wants employees of health facilities to face $1,000 fines for acts of abuse, neglect or exploitation. But it was suggested that the penalty be decreased to $500.
She was asked by the NJ Attorney General’s Office to be a keynote speaker at the first World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, in Trenton. The event was June 15.
“It was important for me to speak that day,” she said. “And it was an honor. It was an audience of attorneys, judges and health care providers. Sure we have Peggy’s Law. But how many people know about it?”
Persi told her audience that an LPN nurse and two aides were with her mother when the injuries occurred. When later questioned, they all invoked the Fifth Amendment. She said while the audience listened to her story, you could hear a pin drop.
The suggestions Persi and DeCroce made were sent to the Office of Legislative Services and put into the form of a bill. Now Assemblywoman DeCroce will review it and send it back to legislative services for a rewrite. Then it goes to the Senate and Assembly health committees for review.
“At this point, I’m trying to get this passed,” Persi said. “It seems like common sense, but so did Peggy’s Law.”
In a draft of her acceptance speech for the Italian American Hall of Fame Award, Persi says that her feelings are a mixture of pride and humility.
“I am proud because this award is in recognition of my achievement,” she wrote. “I am humbled because I am joining an illustrious group of men and women who I am sure have accomplished more than I.”
Her induction is Saturday, Oct. 20, in Atlantic City.