Caregivers who intentionally neglect the elderly or other vulnerable adults could face felony prosecution for the first time in Minnesota under a legislative proposal unveiled Thursday that would close what proponents say is a gaping hole in state law.

Prosecutors say current misdemeanor penalties don't allow them to properly punish violators, even in extreme cases where months of horrendous treatment ends in serious harm or death.

"We're talking about victims who are deprived of the most basic food and water, wound care, pain medication -- people who are locked away and left to rot," said Iris Freeman, a longtime elder care advocate with William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. "These are the cases where a so-called caregiver could better be called a captor."

It remains uncertain whether the proposal, outlined by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, prosecutors and Gov. Mark Dayton's administration, will face opposition from nursing homes, hospitals and others in the care industry. For years, an influential group in the industry has blocked efforts at the Capitol to criminalize neglect.

The proposal comes just months after the Star Tribune highlighted the issue as part of an investigative series that examined abuse of the aged and vulnerable. Minnesota is one of five states without a felony neglect provision to protect the elderly or vulnerable adults from willful neglect.

The paper examined about 50 cases since 2004 where someone was convicted of misdemeanor neglect, including six that resulted in death. That included a mother in Bloomington who died after she was left in squalid conditions in a cold, darkened bedroom by her adult son, who paid a $50 fine and got a year of probation.

"Does this make me sick? You're damn right it does," said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, a DFLer who is among those spearheading the effort. "Every one of God's vulnerable adults deserves better, and we're going to do something about it."

Influential legislator

Iris Freeman said the worst cases tend to occur in people's homes, not professional settings. She has been part of an effort for years to broker a compromise among various interest groups, but that effort broke down last year. Those pushing Thursday's proposal, which includes penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, decided to proceed without support from the industry.

The bill's chief Senate sponsor, Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the legislation is a reasonable proposal that targets the most extreme cases. Limmer, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, said that with a wave of baby boomers set to retire, it's important to confront abuse and neglect.

"With that huge population coming at us, we've got to start putting the signal out that intentional disregard of a person in that status is simply not acceptable," Limmer said. "We're waving a big yellow flag right now."

Nursing homes and hospitals fear such a law would criminalize people or organizations for honest mistakes in difficult cases. Some in the industry who have opposed past proposals, however, say the parties are not far apart.

Matt Anderson, a vice president with the Minnesota Hospital Association, said his group supports tough prosecution of caregivers who intentionally neglect seniors. After quickly reading the proposal Thursday, he said it looked close to what they've agreed upon in the past.

"I couldn't tell you off the top of my head if it's something we're going to support," he said. "I think we're very, very close, and I know we're going to be able to work it out."

An organization consisting of the two major nursing home and assisted living trade groups, Care Providers of Minnesota and Aging Services of Minnesota, issued a joint statement: "We support the creation of a law that will make the most serious cases of neglect punishable as a felony in Minnesota. The language of this new law is important. We look forward to continuing our work with lawmakers to pass an effective and targeted law to protect vulnerable adults."

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777