Legislative session includes protections for the disabled

When the regular session of the General Assembly of the Colorado Legislature adjourned May 9, it left a legacy of two laws that are intended to protect people with disabilities and at-risk adults from harm.

The first, Senate Bill 78, was co-sponsored by our own Sen. Ellen Roberts and supported in the House by Rep. J. Paul Brown. This bill strengthens the language requiring certain professionals to report suspicions of abuse, exploitation, neglect and mistreatment of at-risk adults, including people with disabilities and elders. The bill also creates an Elder Abuse Task Force to make recommendations at the 2013 General Assembly for a process of reporting and response to allegations.

The second bill, House Bill 1085, updates the criminal court rules to allow certain exceptions to the hearsay rules. Previously, if a person with an intellectual disability made a statement about unlawful sexual conduct, sexual assault of a child or domestic violence and that statement was outside of the court proceedings, it would be disqualified as hearsay. Under this new law, statements made by a person with an intellectual disability may be admissible as evidence under certain conditions. This allows evidence to be heard from people with intellectual disabilities even when they are unable to testify in front of the jury.

These laws reflect the ever-growing concerns about the abuse, neglect and exploitation of vulnerable adults, which includes anyone older than 18 who lacks the understanding or ability to communicate and oversee his or her own basic needs. Though anecdotal evidence suggests that cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation have risen in the last decade, no one is really certain how often these situations occur. It is estimated that only one in five cases is reported to authorities.

Because the perpetrators are very often caregivers, the victims may be reluctant to make a report because they are afraid of losing the person who takes care of them. Victims may also fear retaliation or institutionalization or they may be unaware that what they are experiencing is abuse. Social and geographical isolation also can contribute to the lack of reporting.

Knowing that the problems exist on any level, it is important that we have good processes in our communities to report suspicions of abuse and the ability for victims and witnesses, regardless of their functioning level, to have their voices heard. These new laws can only go so far. We all have the responsibility to be aware of those people in our communities who are at risk of victimization and to speak out when we suspect abuse, neglect, mistreatment or exploitation.

If you think that a person with a disability or a senior is experiencing any kind of abuse, contact your local law enforcement agency or the Adult Protection Services at your county’s Human Services department. In La Plata County, call 382-6150.

For more information about advocating for the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, call Community Connections at 259-2464.

Tara Kiene is the director of case management with Community Connections Inc.