Critics worry exploited dependent bill 'too broad'

Whitney Downard/CNHI News Indiana Bernice Corley of the Public Defender Council outlines her concerns about the broadness of a bill targeting caregivers who exploit dependents to an Indiana  Senate committee.

A bill protecting some of Indiana’s most vulnerable tentatively passed its first reading in committee on Tuesday, eliminating minimums for prosecuting financial exploitation of dependents.

The bill aims to target “self-dealing," or a caregiver enriching themselves with their dependent's money. By eliminating the minimum age of the victim [currently 60 years of age] and the $10,000 minimum for a felony charge, it gives prosecutors flexibility when filing charges.

Critics worry exploited dependent bill 'too broad'

Michael Young

“We want people of all ages to be protected and that’s why we took away adult dependent and just made it dependent,” Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, said about the high prosecution standards in the current law. “The issue is whether or not you’re able and capable of making decisions on your own.”

The legislation, SB 249, would expand the current law to protect all dependents, regardless of age, making the first offense of exploitation a misdemeanor and the second offense a felony. The laws for theft already have monetary values, which were eliminated from the bill.

But critics worry the bill, as written, is too broad and may even hurt the families caring for dependents.

“We have an increasing number of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia,” Bernice Corley, with the Public Defender Council, told the senate committee. “We’re asking families to step up and take on this challenging role... [but] if you mess up and we disagree with your decision, we’re going to use the lowest measure of culpability to prosecute you.”

Corley said the bill didn’t address “the informal ways that families take care of one another,” and could endanger well-meaning caretakers.

Corley’s testimony followed committee discussion about business investments of dependent money and spelling out financial agreements for caretaking in legal documents – concerns she said most families didn’t share.

“My first concern is, just looking at the examples that the committee had offered… it was so far from family’s real experiences,” Corley said. “A lot of families just have enough to make their own boat float, let alone taking care of someone else. So it’s very common for families to mingle assets to support one another.”

Corley used the hypothetical example of using grandma’s social security check to close in the sun porch and give grandma her own room at her child’s house. Under the bill’s definition of self-dealing, could that qualify?

“I don’t want to see everyday people who are loving their loved ones and taking care of them dragged through the criminal process,” Corley said.

David Powell, with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, testified to the committee that few financial exploitation crimes were prosecuted despite the aging population, saying the crime was under reported.

“We’re not going to be able to prosecute all of those but we certainly now have a basis to prosecute [some],” Powell said. “For those reasons, we support the bill. We think it gives us tools we don’t currently have.”

But Corley wondered if family dynamics and disagreements on care might not end up litigated in the courtroom.

“When someone is in a crisis, needing care like this, it causes so much stress on a family and there is so much difference of opinion and acrimony that can arise,” Corley said. “It would be easy for it to boil over into the criminal justice system with prosecutors trying to mediate family disagreements.”

Senators Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, and Karen Tallian, D-Portage, both used their vote to raise their individual concerns with the bill’s “broadness.”

“I think this bill as it stands may be overly broad and we may have challenges from family members down the road,” Glick said.

“I would like to see us work on this definition of self-dealing a little bit,” Tallian said. “I will vote yes to keep this moving.”

The bill passed unanimously in committee with eight votes and will be heard before the Senate.

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