New law seeks to combat vulnerable adult exploitation, abuse

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Vulnerable adults would be better protected against financial exploitation and neglect in Washington state under a new law awaiting the governor's signature.

The legislation, requested by the attorney general, would create a new crime of theft involving a vulnerable adult - any person 18 years or older who is clearly mentally or physically unable to care for himself or herself or suffers from a cognitive impairment.

House Bill 1153 unanimously passed in the Senate earlier this month and was approved in the House in February. A date has not yet been set for the bill to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, though it will happen within the next few weeks.

The new statute would rank the crime at a higher seriousness level of theft. Currently, for a standard theft offense, a person could serve zero to 90 days in a county jail if they have no prior criminal history.

The new offenses could force an offender who has no priors to serve up to 12 to 14 months in prison. However, if they've been convicted of several crimes in the past, prosecutors say they could face up to 8 ½ years in prison compared to the existing maximum penalty, which is closer to five years.

Some people opposed this part of the bill during public hearings held earlier this year saying it goes from zero to prison too quickly, but the bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman of Kirkland, says financial abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults is reaching epidemic proportions and the penalties are not strong enough to deter anyone.

Last year, the state's adult protective services received more than 35,000 complaints. Of those, nearly 8,700 were related to financial abuse of an elderly or vulnerable adult and more than 5,600 were complaints of neglect.

"We need to send a strong message that abusing the elderly, finically or physically, is serious enough that you're going to have a felony on your record and you're going to go to prison and be supervised afterward," Goodman said.

Under the measure, the standard of proof for criminal mistreatment cases would change from "recklessness" to "criminal negligence," something prosecutors say was needed to make it easier to prove cases.

"This is a major change that will allow us to hold more people accountable who cause vulnerable people serious injury or death," said Page Ulrey, a King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney, who has prosecuted elder abuse cases since 2001.

Ulrey said the new statute seems like a more appropriate penalty for the degree of harm that is often done in these cases, which she says is committed most often by someone the person trusts or loves such as a family member or close friend.

Mike Webb, the legislative affairs director at the attorney general's office, said he's seen jurors fail to find recklessness beyond a reasonable doubt in cases when an offender didn't remove a catheter leading to death or somebody didn't turn a vulnerable person over for so long it led to bed sores to the bone.

"The existing law made it very challenging to bring about a felony criminal mistreatment charge because jurors struggled to find reckless behavior," he said. "Most saw it as a failure to act rather than recklessness."

Ulrey pointed out another significant change the bill would do is extend the statute of limitations as financial exploitation of vulnerable adults can take years to be uncovered. She said it gives law enforcement, prosecutors and other adult protection services six years instead of three to investigate and gather information surrounding the case.

Thirty-seven states have criminal penalties for financial exploitation of the elderly and vulnerable adults, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Thirty-four states currently have pending legislation, NCSL says.