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Tougher vulnerable adult penalties

Published (3/30/2012)
By Mike Cook
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People who willingly neglect a vulnerable adult could face a more serious criminal charge. So could those who mistreat a child.

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), HF1945/ SF1586* would create a new felony crime for intentional deprivation of a vulnerable adult, such as with food, clothing, shelter or health care, when the caregiver “is reasonably able to make the necessary provisions.”

“Many cases have come to our attention … detailing some of the instances where people have been literally left to rot in their own filth, horrible stories of abuse of vulnerable adults, and up until now we’ve only been able to charge these people with gross misdemeanors,” Gottwalt said.

The bill was successfully amended on the House floor March 27 by Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-Austin) to add HF2220, which would reduce the level of harm required for a felony offense for child mistreatment by replacing “substantial bodily harm” in statute with “demonstrable bodily harm.”

As amended, the bill was passed 128-4. The Senate, which passed the initial bill 64-0 March 19, did not concur with the amended bill. A conference committee is expected to work out the differences.

Gottwalt said the bill is a bipartisan collaboration of many interested parties, including the provider community, law enforcement and prosecutors.

The bill provides for three affirmative defenses:

• the person employed by a facility is unable to “reasonably make the necessary provisions due to inadequate staffing levels, inadequate supervision, or institutional policies”;

• the defendant operates or manages a facility and did not knowingly or intentionally permit an employee to permit the criminal act; and

• where the caregiver “was acting reasonably and necessarily to provide care to another identified vulnerable adult.”

The Poppe-sponsored bill, which stalled in the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, is based on a 2011 Mower County case where a 5-year-old child was chained to the slats of his crib every evening. The parents could only be charged with a gross misdemeanor.

Because there wasn’t substantial bodily harm, only demonstrable bodily harm — any harm that can be observed by another person — could be used in the charging.

“This young boy had bruising, swelling and even a rust stain on his leg,” Poppe said. “What he didn’t have was a broken bone. He did have demonstrable bodily harm; he did not have substantial harm.”

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