A bill will be considered in the 2024 Wyoming legislative session to expand protections for vulnerable adults.
The Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force has passed draft legislation that allows people to file civil lawsuits against those believed to have exploited vulnerable adults.
If successful, the bill would greatly expand on current Wyoming laws, which now only provide for criminal prosecution for people who exploit or mistreat vulnerable adults.
Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, a member of the task force helping spearhead the bill, told Cowboy State Daily the law would bring more accountability and protection for vulnerable adults in Wyoming.
“It’s a means of accountability and another means of really allowing people who are exploited, for whatever reason, to seek justice,” he said.
Vulnerable adults frequently face financial exploitation, victims of theft of sometimes very large sums of money.
Barlow, who has friends who have fallen victim to these types of schemes, believes the bill will deter those who are considering taking advantage of a vulnerable adult and more effectively punish those who already have.
Filling A Void
Under current Wyoming law, reckless abuse, neglect, abandonment, intimidation or exploitation of a vulnerable adult is a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in jail, a fine up to $1,000 and registration of the offender's name in a central registry.
The new bill, Vulnerable Adults-Civil Cause of Action, would allow people to take others to civil court themselves for cases where state prosecutors were unable to file criminal charges, or even if charges were filed, still fall short in the eyes of those exploited.
“I think it’s citizens being able to utilize the courts to ensure they are being protected,” Barlow said.
Task Force member Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, said during a Wednesday meeting that law enforcement often doesn’t have the tools or resources at its disposal to bring criminal charges for the exploitation of vulnerable adults.
She believes the bill will empower Wyoming residents and the state’s vulnerable adults and produce better results for them and their families.
“I think there’s a gap in the law as far as providing this type of piece,” Nethercott said. “Now we’re providing an avenue for that to occur in a very meaningful way.”
Barlow said many of the people who exploit vulnerable adults, a demographic that can range anywhere from younger adults with developmental issues to physically disabled seniors, are serial offenders.
“The lack of prosecution allows them to go back and take advantage of another person,” he said.
Although Barlow said exploitation is usually limited to acts of financial theft, there are other examples of vulnerable adults being compromised in other ways such as unjustly sent to a senior home or people taking advantage of a vulnerable adult’s property.
The issue of vulnerable adult exploitation has been on the Legislature’s radar since at least 2017, when it was identified by a previous task force. Barlow said he was informed by Department of Family Services staff there were 155 cases of exploited vulnerable adults in Wyoming over the last several years, a statistic limited to instances where criminal charges were filed
“It’s another tool in the tool box of people helping themselves or helping their loved ones,” he said.
What Does It Do?
Under the law, a vulnerable adult would be eligible for actual and punitive damages if found deserving by a court.
As written, the bill only allows for a civil action to be brought by the vulnerable adult, that person's guardian or conservator, or by the personal representative of the estate of a deceased vulnerable adult.
Nethercott questions whether it’s unusual to require a personal representative of the estate of a deceased vulnerable adult to be dead for charges to be brought by that person. She said complications can sometimes arise in cases where a victim isn’t available to testify.
“I do anticipate that being a problem if this bill moves forward and passes and comes into law,” she said.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, also pointed to a potential flaw in the bill in that a guardian or conservator could be the one causing the abuse in the first place. He suggested a wider range of people who could pursue civil action.
He also said there is ambiguity about the term “malicious” as far as specific intent to exploit, because the word is not specifically defined under Wyoming law. Barlow suggested removing the word from the bill entirely.
There is a large list of people who are eligible to bring claims of abuse against a vulnerable adult in Wyoming, including themselves if deemed mentally competent.
The bill now covers any form of exploitation and allows for reimbursement of legal fees.
The bill was unanimously approved by the task force and will be sent to a standing interim committee to be considered this fall for sponsorship. If a standing committee doesn’t take up the bill, Barlow said he will sponsor the legislation individually and feels confident it will pass into law.
The only pushback the bill may face is from those who believe the current exploitation laws are sufficient and worry that adding more legal avenues could discourage people from assisting vulnerable adults in the first place.
A separate bill establishing required cross-reporting between law enforcement and the Department of Family Services for discovery of vulnerable adults will be presented to the Judiciary Committee in September.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.