A new state initiative aims to make it easier to identify, prevent and prosecute abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults in Washington.

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New laws to protect the fast-growing number of seniors in Washington state are in the works, following a yearlong initiative aimed at making it easier to identify, prevent and prosecute abuse of elderly and vulnerable adults.

Recommendations from nearly 100 people in fields such as law enforcement, social work and financial services were distilled into five recommendations for new laws that will be announced at a news conference today in Seattle.

The proposals, which will go to the state Legislature, include:

• Increasing the punishment for those convicted of crimes against people over 65.

• Requiring employees of financial institutions to report suspected financial exploitation of vulnerable adults.

• Improving coordination between law enforcement, Adult Protective Services (APS) and people who report abuse.

• Allowing better disclosure of information gathered by APS, including a database where consumers can search for names of abusers.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, who initiated the effort, was not available for comment Monday. But in a foreword to the report, he noted that his office has seen a “steady increase in the frequency with which fraud-related cases involve the exploitation and abuse of older adults.”

Sharon Merriman-Nai, co-manager of the National Center on Elder Abuse in Newark, Del., said lawmakers across the country have struggled since the late 1970s to craft comprehensive solutions to protect elderly and vulnerable adults, with mixed results. There is limited research on the subject, she said, so no one has a good handle on the most common type of abuse and who commits it.

“Family members are frequently the abusers,” she said, but added that patterns of abuse could become clearer as more cases are reported and examined.

In 2006, the year cited in the report, Washington state agencies received more than 13,000 abuse reports involving elderly or vulnerable adults. Policymakers tend to agree the problem is larger than the reports suggest because victims may be reluctant or unable to seek help, they depend on their abusers for care, or they may not realize that financial exploitation is occurring.

Some of the recommendations in the attorney general’s report are already law elsewhere. For example, a 2001 survey of APS administrators found that at least 11 states require employees at financial institutions to report suspected abuse to authorities or face criminal charges. That same report, however, noted that the laws were not widely followed.

Other states also maintain lists of people who have committed elder abuse, but the degree to which that information is available to the public varies.

Consumers in Washington state now can check out caregivers on APS’ Abuse Registry before hiring people to care for their loved ones. But the state won’t guarantee the accuracy of the information, and it is by no means comprehensive, factors that limit its usefulness as a consumer tool.

APS relies on people reporting the abuse — as well as the alleged abusers — to provide accurate names, aliases, spellings, dates of births and Social Security numbers. State employees may verify the information during investigations, but otherwise information from second parties is what goes into the registry, said Carol Sloan, Washington’s APS program manager.

Whether the registry becomes more helpful for consumers, she said, depends on legislative funding.

Still, the registry may prove useful as a check for someone thinking of hiring a caretaker.

Susan Kelleher: skelleher@seattletimes.com, 206-464-2508