Vulnerable Adult Abuse Increases by 25% in Washington State

Vulnerable adult abuse is horrendous.  Unfortunately, according to a Press Release by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (“DSHS”), reports of abuse to Washington’s Adult Protective Services (“APS”) increased from 48,000 in 2017, to more than 60,000 in 2018 (a 25% increase from the previous year).

In part due to this increase, Governor Jay Inslee has proclaimed June 2019 to be Adult Awareness month, with the goal of promoting education, identification, and reporting of vulnerable adult abuse.  While increasing awareness of vulnerable adult abuse is helpful, there is a long way to go before vulnerable adult abuse is eliminated.

Our Commitment to Helping Abused Vulnerable Adults

Vulnerable adults, by definition, are unable to take care of themselves.  Many of those who are abused are in significantly compromised conditions, both physically and cognitively.  Those who have primary care responsibility often treat these people inhumanely, leaving them in soiled clothing, without proper nutrition, suffering from open bed sores and pressure ulcers, and often wasting away.

We can help.

As vulnerable adult abuse lawyers, we represent abused vulnerable adults against in-home caretakers, nursing homes, and others who perpetrate abuse.

In addition, in cases in which DSHS and APS have failed to fulfill their oversight and investigatory obligations, we will also bring suit against DSHS/APS for their role in allowing abuse to occur.

We invite you to call us if a loved one who is a vulnerable adult has suffered abuse at the hands of a caretaker or nursing home facility.  In the interim, the sections below provide important information about Washington’s Vulnerable Adult Abuse law.



In order to better protect vulnerable adults, Washington has adopted a Vulnerable Adult Abuse Statute (the “Statute”).[1]   The Statute provides a comprehensive framework for identifying who is considered a vulnerable adult, the types of actions and neglect that constitute “abuse” under the law, who is required to report abuse, and who may be held liable for vulnerable adult abuse.

Additionally, the Statute also provides for the payment of attorneys’ fees and expert fees in addition to (and separate from) a judgment in favor of a vulnerable adult.  As a result these provisions, bringing a vulnerable adult abuse case under the Statute can be more beneficial to a victim than if a claim was brought simply under a claim for negligence.

Who is Considered a Vulnerable Adult in Washington?

In Washington, under the Statute, a person may be considered a “vulnerable adult” if they are:

  • Over age 60, and cannot properly care for themselves as the result of physical, functional, or mental issues, or
  • Over age 18, and have a developmental disability, their care and welfare is being administered by a legal guardian, and if they are either admitted to a DSHS-licensed facility or if they are receiving at-home services from the state. 

Who May Be Liable for Vulnerable Adult Abuse – Family Members, Caretakers, In-Home Health Care Providers, and Nursing Homes

The Statute defines those who may be liable for vulnerable adult abuse, as well as those who have a legal duty to report vulnerable adult abuse.  Those who potentially may be liable include family member caretakers, in-home healthcare providers, nursing homes, and other care providers and facilities.

Adult Protective Services – How the State of Washington May Be Liable

In Washington, the responsibility for protecting vulnerable adults is overseen by the Aging and Long-Term Support Administration (“ALTSA”), which is a part of the DSHS.   ALTSA has responsibility for various matters, including Home and Community Services, which provides contracting services and which administers long-term care services to individuals (including services performed by home health care workers).

As part of the Home and Community Services (and also as part of ALTSA), Adult Protective Services (“APS”) is charged with investigating adult abuse and seeking to prevent abuse.  APS is thus the primary entity responsible for following up on reports of abuse, and ensuring that those with contracts from ALTSA are not committing abuse.

DSHS (through ALTSA and APS) may become liable under the vulnerable adult statute in a number of ways:

  • If contractors, such as nursing homes and in-home health care providers, are not properly screened, and the failure to conduct a background screening results in injury or death. As an example, if a home health care provider with a history of abuse is issued a contract by ALTSA and that provider abuses a vulnerable adult, then DSHS may be liable.
  • If ALTSA/APS fail to follow up to ensure that proper services are being provided by a contractor. For instance, if an in-home health care provider is not providing the services required under the contract (such as failing to even go to the vulnerable adult’s home), DSHS may be liable.
  • If APS fails to properly investigate an abuse complaint. It is critical that APS promptly investigate all complaints of abuse, as the life of the vulnerable adult may be at stake.  If, however, no investigation is made, and the vulnerable adult dies or is severely injured, then DSHS may be liable.

The foregoing are only some examples of how DSHS may be liable in whole or in part for abuse committed by others; there are other circumstances in which DSHS (or its entities) may additionally be liable.

At our firm, we have a long history of litigating against DSHS, and have recovered millions of dollars against them on behalf of our clients (including one case in which over $19 million was recovered as a result of foster care negligence).  We are well-versed at holding DSHS liable when they, or their entities, are responsible for wrongful conduct.

What Types of Conduct Constitutes Vulnerable Adult Abuse?

Key provisions of Washington’s statutes protecting vulnerable adults are set for in RCW Section 74.34.020 (which are the definitions that apply to vulnerable adults).  Under this section of the Statute, vulnerable abuse can take many forms, including the following:

  • Financial exploitation. The range of ways in which vulnerable adults can be exploited financially covers a wide range that is only limited by the creativity of those engaging in the exploitation.  Common forms of financial exploitation for vulnerable adult abuse involve telephone solicitation calls for over-priced and/or unnecessary services or products, direct “sales” in the form of in-person home sales calls for home repairs or other matters, and fiduciaries and financial advisors who mis-manage client accounts to their benefit.

Financial exploitation by non-family members usually involves getting the vulnerable adult to trust the person committing the wrongful acts, and then praying upon this trust in order to gain money from the vulnerable adult.  Common tactics can be fear (your roof is going to collapse if you don’t hire us to fix it today), or that a limited-time promotion is being offered (we only have a limited number of these products available).

Sadly, financial exploitation of vulnerable adults may occur at the hands of family members.  In some cases, an adult child of a vulnerable adult will seek the “power of the checkbook” so that he or she can write checks to themselves from a vulnerable parent’s checking account.  We often learn about these circumstances from other children who suddenly find that their parent’s account is being rapidly depleted by one of their brothers or sisters.

  • Neglect.  While we normally think of abuse in the form of taking some type of reprehensible action, neglect can also constitute abuse under the Statute (such as not feeding or bathing a vulnerable adult).  When a person or facility (such as a nursing home) accepts responsibility for a vulnerable adult, they assume responsibility for ensuring that all of the physical needs of the vulnerable adult are met.  In the case of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, such facilities not only must make sure that physical needs are met, but also ensure that a Resident’s Nursing Home Bill of Rights are not being violated.
  • Abandonment. Under Washington law, “abandonment” means “action or inaction by a person or entity with a duty of care for a vulnerable adult that leaves the vulnerable person without the means or ability to obtain necessary food, clothing, shelter, or health care.”[2]  Under the law, those who have a duty of care for a vulnerable adult cannot simply walk away from their duties – this also constitutes abuse.
  • Physical or Sexual Assault. Tragically, vulnerable adults are sometimes physically and sexually assaulted.  Such assaults may take place at the hands of family members, as well as by in-home caregivers and staff at nursing homes and other care facilities.

Vulnerable adults with severe cognitive issues – such as dementia – may be at additional risk.  These types of conditions can cause a person to become more agitated and combative, which can make care more difficult and stressful.

Physical abuse can take numerous forms, including:

    • Hitting, punching, slapping, choking, striking with an object, or beating[3]
    • The use of physical restraints on the vulnerable adult to make a caregiver’s job easier[4]
    • The use of chemical restraints (such as drugs that cause lethargy)[5]
    • Other types of abuse, which can include withholding food, liquids, or other necessary care.[6]
  • Mental abuse. Mental abuse is defined in Washington as “a willful verbal or nonverbal action that threatens, humiliates, harasses, coerces, intimidates, isolates, unreasonably confines, or punishes a vulnerable adult. Mental abuse may include ridiculing, yelling, or swearing.[7]  Mental abuse is also a form of abuse under the Statute.

Where Should Vulnerable Abuse be Reported?

In Washington, vulnerable abuse can be reported to APS either online, or by phone.  If the person being abused is in imminent danger, abuse should be reported immediately by calling 911.  If there is no imminent danger, abuse can be reported online, or by calling the appropriate number depending upon the county in which the vulnerable adult lives.

We Provide a Free Consultation, and there is No Fee Unless Compensation is Recovered

We invite you to call us if a loved one who is a vulnerable adult is being abused.  Once we learn about your case we can explain how we can help.


[1] The Statute is also sometimes referred to as “VAS” or the “vulnerable adult statute.”

[2] RCW Section 74.34.020(1)

[3] See RCW Section 74.34.020(2)(b)

[4] See RCW Section 74.34.020(2)

[5] See RCW Section 74.34.020(3)

[6] See RCW Section 74.34.020

[7] RCW Section 74.34.020(2)(c)

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