A proposal to toughen penalties for caregivers who intentionally neglect elderly or vulnerable adults passed two legislative committees today after a provision that gives cover to workers at facilities that are inadequately staffed or for care facilities if criminal neglect is carried out by their employees without their knowledge.

The compromise version of the bill addresses issues raised by care worker unions and nursing homes and other facilities that feared they would be unfairly prosecuted by overzealous or misguided county attorneys.

The bill has specific provisions for an affirmative defense for an employee if neglect occurs because of inadequate staffing, supervision or policies. Or if harm occurs to one client while they are trying help another client.

It also provides a defense for facilities and supervisors where criminal neglect occurs but they did not know about it or permit it to occur.  The proposal creates a deprivation category that create felony charge for a caregiver or facility who intentionally neglects elder or vulnerable adults. Currently, Minnesota is one of five states that treats such neglect as a misdemeanor.

"We are accepting and we are comfortable with these changes," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. "We got the unions on board, the care providers on board and several of the legislators that had concerns.”

Freeman has been one of the driving forces behind the proposals. He said if enacted into law, the proposal will give prosecutors necessary tools to pursue felony convictions against abusive caregivers or facilities that intentionally neglect those in their care.

The compromise was a compromise reached after providers and unions had raised concerns earlier this month. It passed both the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety committee today and the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee. It must get through other committees before going for a full vote in both chambers.

“I think we found what was a middle-ground that supports a felony level crime for deprivation or neglect and provides safeguards to avoid unintended consequences,” said Kevin Goodno, a lobbyist who has testified representing various care providers with their concerns.

Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), a lead sponsor, told the the House public information services office the bill was a compromise by various interests.

"Many of us have heard the horrendous stories about abuse of vulnerable adults and the fact that (the perpetrator) can only be charged with a gross misdemeanor," he said.

Iris Freeman, an elder rights advocate, said the proposal addresses the extreme cases of intentional neglect, which is what advocates of the proposal have wanted all along.

"This has been described as a way to get at those cases at the margins," Freeman said. "Cases where someone is left to decay with sores and maggots and filth.”

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