By Barbara Bailey
It can be disheartening to see someone you love — someone vulnerable — being taken advantage of or abused and not knowing where to turn. Unfortunately, this occurs all too often.
I know because this story played out in my own life when I was taking care of my aging mother. In fact, the reason I sought public office was to address the shortcomings and challenges I witnessed around aging and long-term care. Similar stories came from dozens who contacted my office during this legislative session looking for help. Hundreds of petitions in support of legislation to address this problem were delivered by a constituent with a loved one who was taken advantage of in a particularly egregious way.
I am proud that this year the Legislature agreed to expand protections for vulnerable adults in our state. The language of this new law is found in Senate Bill 5099, a bill I introduced that won unanimous support in the Senate.
The new law stiffens penalties for crimes committed against vulnerable adults. Sometimes the culprit is a family member, a friend or neighbor. One constituent who supported this legislation conveyed a personal experience involving an unscrupulous associate of the vulnerable family member, who went as far as getting a restraining order that pushed the family out of the picture.
Targeting vulnerable adults is unacceptable — the only things worse are crimes against children. Simply put, the new law will increase penalties, reduce barriers to prosecution, and expand the scope of protection for vulnerable persons. Specifically, it creates a new crime of “theft from a vulnerable adult” in the first degree and second degree. This is applicable when an offender takes property or services from a person they know is a vulnerable adult. It also lowers the threshold for the crime of criminal mistreatment from reckless to criminal negligence.
The National Council on Aging estimates that 1 in 10 Americans aged 60 or more has experienced some form of elder abuse. Some estimates range as high as 5 million elders who are abused each year. We heard in public testimony that many of these types of crimes go unreported or unprosecuted, and that is unacceptable. One study estimates that only 1 in 14 cases of abuse is actually reported to authorities.
My bipartisan proposal, which was brought by our state attorney general and sponsored in the House by a Democratic colleague, also encourages counties to develop written protocols for handling criminal cases involving vulnerable adults. All in all, it is about sending a strong message that these heinous crimes will have serious consequences.
You may hear about partisan disagreement in Olympia, but more often than not, we in the Legislature roll up our sleeves to do what is right for the people of Washington. There may be differing opinions about how we approach or solve certain issues, but our focus and end goals remain focused on the people we serve.
I sat down for an interview about this bill earlier in the legislative session, and after the cameras were turned off, I fielded questions from the audience. When I asked how many had experience with the issues this law is aimed at addressing, more than half of the hands went up. That alone demonstrated just how many lives are affected by legislation like this.
As our state’s population ages, we will all face the challenges that come with that process. I am glad that Washington has taken this strong step to improve the lives of families and vulnerable adults around the state.
State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, represents the 10th Legislative District. She serves as the Senate Majority Caucus Whip, and is the co-chair of the Joint Legislative Executive Committee on Aging and Disability.