OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s bipartisan legislation to combat the financial exploitation and neglect of vulnerable adults in Washington state passed the Senate on Monday by a unanimous vote.
The measure, House Bill 1153, overwhelmingly passed the House by a vote of 92-4 in February.
Ferguson partnered with 45th District Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, to improve tools for prosecuting the most common forms of elder abuse. Goodman has been working to get similar legislation passed since 2015. Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, sponsored the companion bill, Senate Bill 5099.
Due to an aging population, elder abuse is a growing problem in Washington state. In 2015, Adult Protective Services received more than 7,800 complaints of financial exploitation and more than 5,400 neglect complaints. These numbers represent more than a 70 percent increase compared to five years prior.
The Attorney General-request legislation establishes a new, specific crime of Theft from a Vulnerable Adult that carries tougher penalties and a longer statute of limitations than felony theft.
Under existing law, 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 is only three years, and the aggravating factor is not applied uniformly across the state. Ferguson’s bill creates a specific crime of Theft from a Vulnerable Adult, with a six-year statute of limitations. In addition, because it is ranked at a higher seriousness level than theft, Theft from a Vulnerable Adult carries higher penalties.
“We must do all we can to protect the vulnerable among us, and increasingly, that means our elders,” Ferguson said. “When current law is insufficient to fulfill this responsibility, we have a duty to change it.”
In testimony, Cathy MacCaul, representing AARP Washington, informed the legislature that one out of 20 seniors become victims of financial exploitation. Dozens of AARP members called and wrote their legislators in support of the bill.
"Financial exploitation of vulnerable adults is a growing and devastating crime which can rob people of their life's savings,” said AARP State Director Doug Shadel. “When older Washingtonians are swindled out of their life's savings by someone they trust, they often lose their ability to support themselves and must rely more heavily on government funded social service programs such as Medicaid. By increasing the penalties for financial exploitation of vulnerable adults, we’re sending a clear message to criminals that we will hold them accountable.”
“I’m pleased to see this critical legislation pass,” Rep. Goodman said. “Those who can no longer care for themselves are at risk of abuse and exploitation. This bill will help ensure that the vulnerable in our communities are protected and that those who perpetrate physical or financial abuse are held accountable for their crimes.”
“We must make the statutes fit these horrible crimes,” 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.”
Ferguson’s legislation received broad support from organizations such as the Washington Association of Area Agencies on Aging, the Washington State Long Term Care Ombudsman, the Arc of Washington, DD Council, Disability Rights Washington, Washington Coalition of Crime Victim Advocates and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Ferguson’s office has prioritized elder abuse prosecutions since he became Attorney General. In 2015, the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit obtained the first felony criminal mistreatment of a vulnerable person conviction since state law was changed to require neglect cases be reported to the unit.
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