Thousands sign petition for better protection of vulnerable adul - NBC Right Now/KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

Thousands sign petition for better protection of vulnerable adults from financial exploitation

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OLYMPIA, WA - “The person who victimized my grandma started by stealing her financial security, but in the end she stole so much more than just money,” says Amy Lecoq. “She stole part of my grandma’s person; the part that was trusting, confident, healthy, independent and proud of herself.” 

Camano Island resident Lecoq told the story about her grandmother to a room full of advocates in Olympia on February 14.  The group then fanned out across the State Capitol campus to deliver nearly 8,000 petitions from Washingtonians to their elected lawmakers urging passage of a bill to better protect vulnerable adults.

Lecoq says that over a three year period, her grandmother gave more than $217,000 to a woman who befriended her in a scheme to exploit her and “maliciously and meticulously created the victim my grandma became.”  According to Lecoq, the money was never paid back or used on her grandmother’s behalf.  “She was able to lie and deceive on a constant basis for years; she used her own children as unknowing accomplices in her scheme,” she says.  “What kind of person can do that?”

Unfortunately Lecoq’s grandmother’s experience is not uncommon. According to a study by the U.S. Justice Department, one out of 20 older Americans are financially mistreated or victimized by a caregiver, friend, family member, lawyer or financial adviser.  While financial exploitation can happen to anyone, older adults and people with disabilities are disproportionately targeted for this crime.

Washington State Adult Protective Services data shows a 92% increase in the number of financial exploitation investigations from 2010 to 2015. With more than 10,000 people turning 65 every day over the next decade, the numbers are likely to continue to rise.

To help combat this problem, AARP and other advocates are pushing for passage of House Bill 1153 and companion Senate Bill 5099.  The measure, sponsored by Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) in the House and Senator Barbara Bailey (R-10) in the Senate, is also at the request of Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

Washington State is one of only 13 states without a criminal statute for the financial exploitation of vulnerable adults. Prosecutors must bring these cases using standard theft statutes, making it more challenging to criminally prosecute financial exploitation crimes against elders, whether through scams, misuse of a power of attorney, or outright stealing.

Often the financial exploitation goes on for a long period of time before it ever comes to light. When the older person has dementia or is socially isolated, this is even more likely to be the case,” says King County prosecutor Page Ulrey who specializes in elder abuse cases. “In some cases, the crime is reported so late that it is too late to prosecute under standard theft statutes.” 

Ulrey also says that the current penalties for exploiting a vulnerable adult are too low.  “If you commit this crime today and steal $5,000 or more from someone, you’re looking at a standard range sentence of only 0-90 days in jail,” says Ulrey.  “If we pass this bill we’re looking at higher penalties, and, I hope, a greater deterrent for these crimes.”

HB1153 / SB5099 would better protect the elderly and people with disabilities by increasing penalties for theft from vulnerable adults, and by making it easier to bring charges and secure convictions of those who exploit and neglect vulnerable adults. Specifically, the legislation would:

  • Double the statute of limitations for financial exploitation of vulnerable adults to six years;
  • increase the penalties for those who are convicted of theft from a vulnerable adult;
  • change the intent element for felony-level criminal mistreatment (neglect) of vulnerable adults and children from “recklessness” to “criminal negligence.”

“By increasing the penalties for financial exploitation of vulnerable adults, we’re sending a clear message to criminals that we will hold them accountable,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

“Financial exploitation of vulnerable adults is a growing and devastating crime which can rob people of their life's savings,” says AARP Advocacy Director Cathy MacCaul. “When older Washingtonians are swindled out of their life's savings by someone they trust, they often lose their ability to support themselves and must rely more heavily on government funded social service programs such as Medicaid.”

As for Lecoq, the woman who took advantage of her grandmother was convicted of nine counts of felony theft in 2015. However an appeal has just been filed and a decision is expected sometime later this year. So far, Lecoq’s grandmother has only been able to recoup $11 of the hundreds of thousands that were stolen from her.

Lecoq says she is committed to telling her story in an effort to help others. “I am devoted to advocating in any way that can help us fight financial exploitation of the elderly.  It is my hope that my words might one day prevent another victim.”

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