BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Health care workers, law enforcement and other professionals would be required to report the abuse of senior citizens and other vulnerable adults under bipartisan legislation considered by the North Dakota Senate.
Sen. Phil Murphy, D-Portland, said North Dakota and Colorado are the only two states that don't require the reporting of adult abuse. Murphy told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that the bill is intended to protect seniors from physical, mental, sexual and financial abuse.
North Dakota law requires the reporting of child abuse or neglect. Murphy, who taught school for 35 years, said he has reported suspected abuse of children at least seven times, as mandated by state law.
"I find it difficult to understand why we here in North Dakota would not afford the same measure of respect to our elder citizens," Murphy said. "The idea is to help our old folks."
Failure to report abuse would be an infraction resulting in fines of up to $500. No criminal charges would result.
The Senate committee took no action on the bill Wednesday.
Gretchen Dobervich, a spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota and North Dakota, said one in four of the 19,000 North Dakotans diagnosed with the disease live alone, and many of them reside in rural areas.
"Mandated reporting of abuse and neglect would provide and additional layer of support and safety for them," Dobervich said. "Vulnerable persons who are victims of abuse and neglect may not report the maltreatment in fear of retaliation or concern that any assistance they are being provided will cease and they will no longer be able to live at home."
Bill Neumann, executive director of the State Bar Association, said his group opposes the inclusion of attorneys as mandated reporters.
"I know the bill's sponsors only want to do what's best for vulnerable adults but requiring lawyers to report client confidences strikes at the very heart of the attorney-client relationship," said Neumann, a former state Supreme Court justice.
Michael Booth, a Bismarck cardiac surgeon, said the measure is a "logical extension" of North Dakota law that mandates the reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect.
"It doesn't mean conviction — it means bringing in resources to assess the situation," Booth said.
Mary Quintus, a retired nurse from New Salem, said she has seen abuse of seniors and it should be mandatory for people to report the abuse. She called it a cop-out to look the other way.
"To be a North Dakotan means you don't push your nose in other people's business — it ain't proper," she said. "And yet there are situations where it is our business to push our noses into other people's business."
Cher Meyer traveled across the state from Thompson, in eastern North Dakota, to testify in favor of the measure.
"The elder population can be vulnerable and easy targets just like our children," she said. "We ourselves are going to be an elder someday. Wouldn't you want the same protection of mandatory reporting?