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Bill Aims to Protect Elderly from Exploitation

AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats and Republicans here can agree on the need to toughen up Maine laws that protect seniors citizens against financial exploitation. According to a recent report, it's estimated that 33,000 elderly Mainers will be abused or financially exploited this year.

While the state has made some progress on raising awareness about the potential for physical abuse of elders by caretakers or family members, Republican Sen. David Burns says the threat of financial abuse also needs attention.

"This bill addresses another very important matter by assuring that better responses and outcomes when criminals victimize senior citizens, personally or financially," Burns says.

Burns is co-sponsoring legislation, along with Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves that draws on the findings of a task force on financial exploitation of the elderly convened by Maine Attorney General Janet Mills. The study found that reported abuse and exploitation cases to authorities tend get lost in the heavy caseloads facing county prosecutors, and that investigators too often see these incidents as civil rather than criminal offenses.

Burns says that by passing the beefed-up elder financial exploitation law, the Legislature will send a strong message to the criminal justice system.

"If this is taken on as a priority, that will filter down through the criminal justice and the court system and that will be seen as a priority and we will devote more resources to it," Burns says.

The bill provides about $400,000 over two years to pay for one detective and an assistant attorney general to investigate elder abuse cases. It would also revise existing state law to include financial exploitation within the definition of "abuse."

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says the new positions would provide an additional resource for county prosecutors burdened with rising caseloads, "Ranging from everything from OUIs to disorderly conduct to fishing without a license and manslaughter and arson.

"So to drop that kind of a case on an assistant DA with that kind of caseload is pretty unfair and you can understand why they go, 'Ohhh, please,do I have to?'" she says.

The Legislature's Judiciary Committee is expected to review the bill later this month.