Minnesota lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a measure that would, for the first time, punish abusive caregivers with prison time and significant fines if they severely neglect elderly and vulnerable adults.

The bill, which has the support of Gov. Mark Dayton, creates a felony provision in state law that would target caregivers who intentionally deprive vulnerable adults of food, clothing, shelter, health care or supervision. Elder advocates and prosecutors say it will close a gaping loophole that for years left vulnerable people without proper protection. In some cases, elders have been found in horrible squalor, left in their own feces or with debilitating bed sores. Some even died at the hands of neglectful caregivers.

Minnesota is one of five states that has treated such crimes as misdemeanors with little or no jail time and minimal fines. That left county prosecutors frustrated that the punishment did not match the level of maltreatment in severe cases of intentional harm. The new law would create a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

"It's going to declare that Minnesota will not tolerate that kind of deprivation of people who cannot fend for themselves," said Iris Freeman, a longtime elder advocate at the William Mitchell College of Law Center for Elder Justice & Policy.

On the House floor last month, Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, a lead sponsor of the bill, cited a Star Tribune investigation that highlighted the issue as part of a series examining elder abuse and neglect in Minnesota. Gottwalt called some of the cases and the corresponding lack of punishment "outrageous."

"We see far too much of this in society for people who are in our supervision or care," Gottwalt said. "These stories that come to light are atrocious and they cry out for some sort of action to protect these people."

Similar proposals, which had been pushed for years by advocates who argued that severe neglect of the elderly should be treated with the same gravity as the mistreatment of children or pets, ran into resistance from the politically powerful care industry. Industry officials were concerned that providers and workers who make honest mistakes or missteps would be treated as criminals by overzealous prosecutors.

"I've been chasing this bill for eight to 10 years," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who said he was never able to get it out of committee. "It was surprising to me that Minnesota would have less of a reaction to abuse of a human being than to someone's pet animal."

A compromise was reached this session after negotiators created a proposal that gives some cover to care workers and facilities if they can show neglect occurred through no fault of theirs or in carrying out their duties providing for other vulnerable adults in their care.

The proposal was set to pass last month, but Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, asked that it also include a provision toughening laws for unreasonable restraint of children. That grew out of a recent case in her part of the state involving parents who used chains to restrain their child. The revised proposal stiffened the penalty for unreasonable restraint of children to up to two years in prison and a $4,000 fine.

"The punishment in these cases has to be harsher," Poppe said.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777