CONWAY -- Martha Deaver has not forgotten the times her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law spent in nursing homes and is determined to help others get better treatment.
As president of the nonprofit Advocates for Nursing Home Residents since 2008, Deaver has been honored over the years by organizations, including the FBI and more recently the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association.
The Ladies Home Journal wrote about Deaver's experiences in 2006, and she worked with Consumer Reports on a 2006 article about the country's nursing homes. Most importantly, Deaver offers consumers a mountain of research on nursing-home conditions at no charge through the advocacy group's website, a̶a̶n̶h̶.̶o̶r̶g̶ aanhr.org.*
Deaver works from an office in her Conway home. As a volunteer, she is not paid. When she goes somewhere related to her advocacy work, she wears a large button with a picture of her mother, Helen Steger, who died in a nursing home in 2001. A large green-and-white magnet on her vehicle says, "Protect the Rights of Nursing Home Residents."
"I've been doing advocacy for years, and I get calls daily from family members who are hysterical," Deaver said. "They don't know what to do, don't know where to go. They don't know there's an oversight agency. Their loved ones have been found with broken bones ... bed sores ... gangrene. ... I have dealt with thousands of complaints."
Asked for comment on Deaver and her work, Rachel Davis, executive director of the Arkansas Health Care Association, said in an email Friday that the association had no comment. The association has 212 member facilities, or 93 percent of the state's nursing-home and long-term care facilities, according to its website.
Deaver said she gets calls from relatives of nursing-home residents, whistleblowers and others. She said she never gets used to the problems. She still has pictures, more than a decade old, of one resident who was covered with ant bites.
"I turn over information from whistleblowers in abuse cases that come across my desk to state and federal investigators," she said. "I give them detailed information. They're always receptive."
Sometimes her information has led to government action.
In awarding her the 2010 FBI Director's Community Leadership Award for Arkansas, the FBI said it based her selection on "her diligent and dedicated work to not only improve the lives of the nursing home residents in Arkansas, but also across the United States, by protecting them from crimes and abuses committed against these elderly and infirm citizens, as well as to raise the public's attention to this tragedy."
Deaver, whose late father, Edward Steger, was an Air Force colonel, also advocates for veterans. She helped expose problems with the Fayetteville Veterans Home in recent years and now serves on a committee working on the development of a new veterans nursing home at Fort Roots in North Little Rock.
Deaver said her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law all received substandard care or were abused while in nursing homes. Deaver began filing complaints with the state's oversight agency, the Office of Long Term Care.
Little Rock attorney Bob Edwards, a past president of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association," said Deaver "truly cares."
"What happened to her mother -- she's going to do her best not to let that happen to anyone else," said Edwards, who met Deaver in 1999 when he worked for the Arkansas attorney general's office.
Praise also came from Thomas Buchanan, the attorney who represents the family of Martha Bull, a Perryville woman whose 2008 death in a Greenbrier nursing home led to a negligence lawsuit and later the federal conviction of Michael Maggio, the former judge who admitted taking a bribe to lower the lawsuit judgment. Maggio has since appealed to withdraw that plea.
Buchanan called Deaver "a tireless advocate for the elderly and all folks who are in nursing homes."
"I have a great deal of respect for Martha Deaver and the work that she's done to bring about change and to bring issues to light that the public is either unaware of or doesn't want to think about," he said.
Among the people Deaver has helped is Virginia Brown, whose 41-year-old son has been in a nursing home since a car wreck in 2008 left him paralyzed.
Brown said Deaver has helped her "mentally and every other way to deal with his situation."
"She's gotten me help for him, whereas any other time it would be like a brick wall for me to ... get the resources for him that he needs," said Brown, who lives in Redfield.
Such resources, she said, have included wheelchairs and a computer on which her son can communicate with others.
"I just know if she was not there to educate me on a lot of things, I wouldn't know what to do and how to do" some things for him, Brown said. "She's educated me to better assist him."
Deaver said the federal government's ratings have many of Arkansas' 228 nursing homes as average or worse.
"They're not all bad," Deaver said of the Arkansas facilities. "But too many of them are forced by the owners to cut costs to the detriment of the residents."
"It's important for me to let the public know what's really happening out there," she said.
The memory of her own family members' problems keeps her going. "I had nobody to help me," she said.
"Don't think for a minute that I don't make a difference in people's lives and save lives. In many, many cases, I'm able to stop the abuse, help the family member, stop the death from occurring."
She said she looks at her ability to bring about change as a blessing. The same can be said about her strength.
"I'm not weak," said Deaver, who wore big, silver, hoop earrings, a large necklace and colorful bracelets during a recent interview. "I may wear lipstick and earrings and all that, but do not take me for granted. It will be your worst mistake, and a lot of people have found that out the hard way."
"You have to be strong, you have to be tough, you have to be very outspoken to get things done," she said.
State Desk on 08/08/2016
*CORRECTION: The website address for Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents is aanhr.org. The address was listed incorrectly in this article.
Print Headline: For advocate, mistreated kin fuel life's work