EMU professors testify before lawmakers on need for laws to protect adults against online exploitation, aggression and bullying

By Geoff Larcom / EMU

YPSILANTI – Two Eastern Michigan University professors spoke to Michigan lawmakers this month, pushing for a new state law to protect vulnerable adults with disabilities against online predation.

Assistant professors Christina Marsack-Topolewski and Annemarie Kelly, faculty members in the College of Health and Human Services, testified before the Michigan House of Representatives Committee for Families, Seniors, and Children in Lansing on June 12. The testimony was broadcast live online and over public television.

Kelly and Marsack-Topolewski spoke in support of House Bill 4076 and advocated for stronger legal protections for vulnerable adults against online exploitation, aggression, and bullying.

The bill seeks to help Michiganders hold offenders accountable for a broad array of harms against vulnerable adults and deter would-be predators. If the bill is passed, it will become a criminal act in Michigan to threaten, intimidate, command, force, coerce, or exploit the vulnerability of a vulnerable adult into providing sexually explicit material.

Under this bill, vulnerable adults are considered any “individual age 18 or over who, because of age, developmental disability, mental illness, or physical disability, requires supervision or personal care or lacks the personal and social skills required to live independently.”  The definition includes people placed in adult foster care families, small group homes, and those in need of protective services.

Marsack-Topolewski and Kelly’s testimony focused on four key points:

• Vulnerable adults have a higher risk of being targeted for online exploitation, aggression, and bullying than the general population.

• Both the World Health Organization and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have classified online predation as a “major public health problem” that can harm people across their lifespans physically, emotionally, and financially.

• An experience with sexually explicit exploitation can seriously damage personal dignity and trigger adverse mental health outcomes. “Vulnerable adults must be legally guarded against those who wish to take advantage of any intellectual, social, and practical deficits to abuse, exploit, and offend,” Kelly said.

• It is a misconception to assume vulnerable adults will simply log off the Internet or cancel social media to avoid an online threat. “Many vulnerable adults experience major challenges in discerning whether a situation or person is predatory,” Marsack-Topolewski said. “Though an individual may be a legal adult, it is a mistake to equate one’s chronological age – the number of years lived – with mental age.”

For the past two years, Kelly and Marsack-Topolewski have collaborated on research focusing on disability law and policy. They also work together on the Eastern Michigan University Aging Studies Faculty Committee, the Interprofessional Education Faculty Scholars Committee, and the Office for Research Development and Administration Culture of Research Excellence Committee.

Over the next several years, they will continue to analyze disability policy to ascertain whether laws must to be tailored to meet the needs of vulnerable adults.

Marsack-Topolewski, who teaches in the School of Social Work, can be reached at ctopole1@emich.edu. Kelly, who teaches in the School of Health Sciences, can be reached at akelly30@emich.edu.

About Eastern Michigan University

Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 18,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University’s Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Health and Human Services; Technology, and its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University’s website.

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