While school funding and bickering over the capital budget got the lion’s share of attention in the most recent Washington legislative session, important changes were also made to the criminal code in an effort to help protect elders and other vulnerable adults. Financial and physical abuse of elders and vulnerable adults is a growing epidemic. Last year, Washington’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. Legislators on both sides of the aisle recognized this crisis and broadly supported the new laws.

One act of the Legislator created a new crime of Theft from a Vulnerable Adult. This crime covers theft of property or services from a person the defendant knows or should know is a vulnerable adult.  Until now, theft from vulnerable adults fell under the generic theft statutes.  However, law enforcement commonly told victims that criminal investigation and prosecution wasn’t a possibility and that their only option was a civil lawsuit.   Law enforcement viewed the cases as too difficult to prosecute because the theft was often committed by family or caregivers.   The new law makes it clear (for law enforcement, victims and perpetrators) that theft from a vulnerable adult is a criminal act that should be prosecuted in criminal courts.  It also encourages counties to form advocacy teams whose sole focus is crimes against vulnerable adults and to develop protocols for handling criminal cases involving vulnerable adults.

The new law also extends the statute of limitations (the time period during which a crime can be prosecuted) for felony theft from a vulnerable adult from three to six years. The new time limits account for the fact that theft from elders and vulnerable adults often takes longer than usual to be discovered due to the close relationship that often exists between the victim and perpetrator.

A new law also makes it easier to prosecute the crime of Criminal Mistreatment. Criminal Mistreatment occurs when a parent or person entrusted with the physical custody and/or care of a child or dependent person (this includes caregivers) withholds the basic necessities of life and this causes or creates a risk of great or substantial bodily harm.  Previous law required prosecutors show the perpetrator acted with “recklessness”.  This was often very difficult to prove.  The new statute makes it easier for prosecutors to prove Criminal Mistreatment by showing that the perpetrator acted with “criminal negligence”.

These new laws give police and prosecutors better tools to fight the growing crisis of elder abuse. Laws, however, are only one piece of the puzzle. It is equally, if not more important, that all of us remain vigilant to suspicious circumstances and activity. If you see something that seems amiss, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions or make a report to law enforcement or adult protective services. We all have a role to play in protecting elders and vulnerable adults in our community.

As always, thanks for reading.

Barry M. Meyers

David M. Neubeck 

Sara LC Hulford

Elder Law Offices of

Barry M. Meyers, P.S.



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