For years, prosecutors and advocates for the elderly have tried to provide vulnerable adults legal protection similar to children in Minnesota. But those efforts have been opposed by some influential health care providers and lawmakers concerned that workers or family caregivers would be unfairly punished.
Iris Freeman, associate director at the Center for Elder Justice and Policy at William Mitchell College of Law, said it's difficult to find common ground on the issue. But she said it's important to provide justice "for vulnerable adults that have been victimized by this kind of very serious neglect."
The Star Tribune reviewed about 50 cases filed statewide since 2004 in which someone was convicted of misdemeanor charges for neglecting a vulnerable adult. In six cases, the victim died. Other victims were locked in hot cars while their caregivers went shopping or they ended up in the hospital because of maltreatment. Last year, doctors had to amputate the leg of a disabled man after his mother failed to get him treatment for a badly infected foot.
"We're missing crime here," said Amy Sweasy, an assistant Hennepin County attorney who specializes in elder rights cases. "There's conduct that's worse than misdemeanor conduct that we don't have the statute to use."
Some opponents fear a tougher law would create criminals out of well-intentioned workers in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other regulated settings.
"Our members, they would not have any problem if you exempted people that work in facilities and applied it out in the community, where people are much more at risk where you don't have the kinds of checks and balances and eyes and ears," said Darrell Shreve, vice president of health policy with Aging Services of Minnesota, a trade group that represents nursing homes and other senior housing providers.
Shreve noted that doctors and other caregivers who make mistakes are already subject to punishment, both by regulators and the civil courts.
"If a physician commits malpractice you don't put the doc in jail. They get sued," Shreve said. "Why would this be any different?"
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State Law Has Huge Gap in Punishing Elder Neglect