ANNAPOLIS – Legislation that would make it a crime for caregivers — including family members — to intentionally cause severe emotional distress to the physically or mentally disabled adults under their charge was praised Wednesday as a critical amendment to the current prohibition on caregivers causing serious physical harm to this population.
“Our most vulnerable citizens deserve to live a life with dignity,” Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County and City, told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, which is considering the legislation.
Senate Bill 153, of which Sydnor is a lead sponsor, would outlaw “the intentional and malicious infliction of severe emotional distress by use of actual or threatened harm, harassment, intimidation, humiliation, isolation, or other means that profoundly confuse or frighten a vulnerable adult.”
Caregivers found guilty of causing severe emotional distress would be subject to the same felonious penalty as those who intentionally cause physical injury: up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
Deputy Harford County State’s Attorney Gavin Patashnick told the Senate panel the legislation would close a loophole in Maryland law that provides elderly and other vulnerable adults “no recourse” when they endure emotional rather than physical abuse from their caregivers.
Sen. Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, a committee member, questioned the need for what he called the bill’s ill-defined phrase “profoundly confuse,” saying such a standard of confusion would be difficult for prosecutors to prove, particularly when the victim is mentally disabled.
Patashnick, a prosecutor, agreed, saying the word could be struck from the bill without changing the nature of the offense.
Tammy Bresnahan, of AARP Maryland, told the Senate panel that society has a responsibility to safeguard older citizens who can no longer protect themselves.
“We have to be looking out for our aging and vulnerable population,” Bresnahan said in support of SB153. “They paved the way. We owe it to them to keep them safe.”
Attorney Danielle Cruttenden of the Maryland State Bar Association’s Vulnerable Adults Task Force called the legislation necessary to stem emotional abuse, which she called “an endemic problem (that) leads to isolation and deterioration” of its victims.
Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County, a lead sponsor of the Senate bill, credited Del. Michele Guyton, D-Baltimore County, as the driving force behind the legislation. Guyton is chief sponsor of the cross-filed measure, House Bill 33.