PAINESVILLE, Ohio — A simple Google search confirmed what Robert Rideout suspected – something was very wrong with the woman he hired to take care of his aging mother.
“It came up with she’s known as the Sweetheart Swindler,” said Rideout after looking at a screen filled with links to old news articles.
THE RIDEOUT’S STORY
When Robert Rideout needed a caregiver for his 83-year-old mother Rosa he contacted a home health care agency in Lake County. In just a matter of hours, he had a caregiver ready to start.
“Two hours for an interview, to be hired, and in my mom’s house,” recalled Rideout.
Within weeks alarms went off.
“My mother was asking for money, regularly,” he said he was asked to authorize hundreds of dollars in unaccounted expenses every couple of weeks.
Thousands of dollars were missing before he searched the internet and read the headline, “Tonya Weiss, The Sweetheart Swindler.”
“I was just alarmed because I hired her from an agency,” he said.
THE SWEETHEART SWINDLER
Law enforcement officials say Weiss earned the title by spending years posing as a caregiver and stealing victims’ life savings.
“A monster who preys on seniors” is how former Ross County Sheriff Investigator Dale Gillette described Tonya Weiss. Gillette spent years tracking her crime spree which included a 1997 Florida case for stealing more than $100,000. Weiss was also convicted in Ohio in 2003 for swindling two more victims and again in 2012 for a fraud case.
“She is cold hearted,” said Gillette, “She could take somebody’s money and leave them homeless.”
Gillette recalled a prison interview with Weiss where he remembers her saying, “it wasn’t so much about the money as it was a challenge as to how much money she could get.”
Weiss was not convicted of a crime in Rideout’s case, but the family filed a civil lawsuit against Nightingale Home Support and Care, Inc. that hired her and was awarded an undisclosed settlement—alleging the agency failed to perform a criminal background check.
Despite a judge approving the settlement, the Rideout family says they never received a dime.
The 5 On Your Side Investigators contacted Weiss outside of her home near Chillicothe. Weiss declined to comment on her involvement.
WHAT KIND OF AGENCY WOULD HIRE A FELON?
Weiss worked for Nightingale Home Support and Care in Lake County. The agency is owned by Stella Nsong--a licensed, registered nurse with no history of discipline.
Nsong also promotes other on-line enterprises that describe how opening home care agencies can be a lucrative business opportunity. Plus, she’s hired production companies to create videos that attempt to convince you that Nsong is a recognized expert that can be trusted.
For example, you can see her interviewed on her own website, plus links to her “Six Figures Nurse Academy” where you can also access what Nsong calls “Home Care Biz in a Box” and “Launch Your Agency in a Weekend”.
While we found no complaints involving these enterprises—we did find the Ohio Department of Health shut down a Columbus assisted living center in 2015 founded by Nsong and where she served as its nurse administrator.
The Ohio Department of Health shut down “Woodlands at Eastland” in 2015 citing “conditions presented a clear and present danger”.
Plus, we also found 17 Nightingale employees sued Nsong claiming they were not paid—including Amber Boykin who says she was hired without a shred of experience.
“I never worked as a home health aide,” said Boykin, adding that “for weeks I wasn’t paid.”
THE HUNT FOR ANSWERS
The 5 On Your Side Investigators attempted to speak with Nsong about her business practices, a front desk employee at her agency in Mentor said, “she is not here” and likely in New Jersey, but said he would to let her know we had questions.
Nsong has yet to contact us.
But we did find Nsong operating a series of webinars where she promotes business opportunities for nurses and others who are interested in the home health care industry.
“I started with $1,263 and in 36 months I had made over a million dollars in gross revenue,” said Nsong during the 35-minute webinar.
Finally, we reached her through a phone number provided at the webinar’s conclusion where she told interested participants that she was available for one-on-one counseling that could be scheduled in advance.
On the phone, Nsong told us she was currently in New Jersey but also had an office in Ohio. During the call she began describing how she “coached people to build a successful home healthcare company” and claimed she is “considered the expert in non-medical home care”.
According to Nsong, you can “start a home health care agency for $200 or less”.
“The is some good news for you,” said Nsong, “in the state of Ohio home care is not licensed if you keep it private.” She would later say, “There is big money to be made if you know what you are doing”.
Initially, Nsong spoke for almost eight minutes until being told we were with the 5 On Your Side Investigators in Cleveland and had questions about her business practices.
“I can’t answer questions about Nightingale Home Support because this is not a section of time to answer questions about that,” said Nsong, “you have to make an appointment with me to do that privately.”
When asked if she had ever hired someone with a criminal background, Weiss said “in the private sector home care in Ohio is not regulated so actually an agency could.”
Even so, Ohio revised code specifically bans hiring caregivers with specific criminal convictions such as abuse, neglect or misappropriation of clients funds.
Nsong then hung up when questioned specifically about hiring Tonya Weiss.
The Rideout’s complaint and Nsong’s agency highlight an alarming lack of regulation and oversight in Ohio when it comes to hiring caregivers.
While agencies are required under state law to perform an initial criminal background check—they can hire employees before checks are even completed.
Also, Ohio has no requirements to perform mandated annual checks, no required annual inspection and no licensing requirements to ensure compliance.
Even more alarming, the 5 On Your Side Investigation found agencies like Nightingale cater to private pay clients who do not rely on either Medicare or Medicaid—so they are exempt from any type of “initial certification” by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.
Home health care experts estimate there are hundreds of agencies similar to Nightingale across Ohio but no one knows exactly how many since no one is tracking them.
According to the Ohio Department of Health, “home health agencies are not licensed or registered” by the department but “must be certified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services if they intended to collect Medicare or Medicaid payments”.
The lack of information leaves families like the Rideout’s in the dark.
“You need a license to catch a trout in every state in the country but you don’t need a license to take care of a senior,” said Bongiorno.
The HCAOA, founded in 2002, is a leading trade association representing nearly 3,000 companies that employs more than 500,000 caregivers across the United States.
Bongiorno said, “we actually employ all of our caregivers” rather than what he calls “placement agencies that are independently placing caregivers” with no supervision or liability insurance.
According to Bongiorno, HCAOA members supervise and oversee care, provide training, background checks as part of doing business as compared to what he calls rogue caregivers who have no affiliation and are simply hired in ads or on websites like “Craig’s List”.
The HCAOA supports licensure and is currently working with state officials in Ohio to raise standards.