Police Sgt. Mike Wortman, who heads St. Paul's new unit to investigate crimes against vulnerable older people, says one incident lingers in his mind. An older, developmentally delayed woman had lived next to her neighbor for years. One winter, while shoveling her sidewalk, she happened to push some snow onto his property.
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"He decided to go out and hit her and shove her into the snowbank — just because she's shoveling the snow onto his sidewalk. He knew of her disability, that she is aging, that she is developmentally delayed," said Wortman, the investigating officer.
The woman called the police, but by the time they arrived, the neighbor had left. Under the law at that time, no arrest was made.
"Unfortunately, all I could do was issue a misdemeanor charge, nothing more than a ticket, a citation," he said. "That hurts, that really hurts, that we're not looking after the elderly in the way that we should."
Revisions this year to Minnesota law would make assault on a vulnerable adult a gross misdemeanor. That means a suspect would be arrested and brought to court for bail, and could be sentenced to up to a year in jail and fined up to $3,000. A misdemeanor charge carries a top penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Previously, the higher penalty applied only to caregivers.
"This will get them more than just a slap on a wrist, more than like getting a traffic ticket," Wortman said.
Minnesota first enacted its Vulnerable Adults Act in 1980. Major revisions in 2009 addressed financial exploitation; improved community notification when vulnerable adults are missing; and created a streamlined system for reporting abuse. This year's changes closed some holes in existing law, according to Iris Freeman, associate director of the Center for Elder Justice & Policy at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. The revisions passed the legislature unanimously and took effect Aug. 1.
"It's important for us as a society that our criminal sanctions be protective of our most frail and vulnerable in society. I believe this change in the law reflects that attitude," said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, chairman of the Minnesota Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and chief Senate author of this year's revisions.