Bipartisan bill addressing neglect, financial exploitation passes by 92-4 margin
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s bipartisan legislation to combat both financial exploitation and neglect of vulnerable adults in Washington state passed the House of Representatives today by a vote of 92-4.
The measure, House Bill 1153, now heads to the Senate.
In 2015, Adult Protective Services received more than 7,800 complaints of financial exploitation and more than 5,400 neglect complaints — together nearly half of all complaints to APS and thousands more than the agency received just five years ago.
The Attorney General-request legislation establishes a new, specific crime to address the unique circumstances of theft cases involving vulnerable adults. It also makes important changes to the standard for felony criminal mistreatment.
“These are our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our elders,” Ferguson said. “We have a responsibility to protect them, and this legislation bolsters our ability to punish those who mistreat vulnerable adults. I am pleased an overwhelming bipartisan majority of the House agrees.”
Under existing law, in cases involving theft from a vulnerable adult, prosecutors must charge first- or second-degree theft, with an aggravating factor added to the charge for victimizing a vulnerable adult. The statute of limitations for theft charges is only three years, however, and it can take years for financial exploitation of vulnerable adults to be uncovered.
In addition, the current aggravating factor is not applied uniformly across Washington’s 39 counties.
To correct this, Ferguson’s proposal would create a specific crime of Theft from a Vulnerable Adult, with a six-year statute of limitations. Thirty-seven other states have such laws.
Ferguson’s legislation also amends the standard of proof for criminal mistreatment cases from “recklessness” to “criminal negligence.” Currently, prosecutors must prove recklessness to sustain a felony criminal mistreatment charge. This standard makes prosecutions difficult, because it is inconsistent with the realities of the crimes, which involve a gross failure to act, rather than reckless affirmative acts.
In 2015, the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit obtained a felony criminal mistreatment conviction in a case where the victim suffered six severe pressure ulcers, at least one of which went to the bone. Due to the difficulty of prosecuting these cases, however, that case represented the first felony criminal mistreatment conviction for the office in the 10 years state law has mandated neglect cases be reported to the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
Despite the more than 5,000 complaints of neglect of a vulnerable adult in 2015, only 34 felony criminal mistreatment charges were filed, according the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Ferguson’s legislation is sponsored by 45th District Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland. Its companion bill, Senate Bill 5099, is sponsored by 10th District Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
“This bill is a top priority for me because it will help ensure that vulnerable adults are receiving the basic necessities of life and that anyone who abuses a vulnerable adult is held accountable,” Rep. Goodman said.
“We must make the statutes fit these horrible crimes,” Sen. Bailey said. “By removing roadblocks in the law, we can give prosecutors the proper tools to go after those who take advantage of this vulnerable population.”
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Peter Lavallee, Communications Director, (360) 586-0725; PeterL@atg.wa.gov