Advancing Justice for Older Adults

/ Blog Post

By 2020 Fellows Taylor Amstutz and Archie Roundtree Jr.

June 15 marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which highlights the widespread issue of harm and exploitation perpetrated against older adults. Anyone can be a crime victim, but specific demographic groups may be targeted and have unique legal needs. To address these needs, Equal Justice Works formed the Elder Justice Program in 2020. Taylor Amstutz and Archie Roundtree Jr. are Fellows in the Elder Justice Program at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles and, in honor of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, they shared how they collaborate to promote access to justice for older adults in their communities.

Elder abuse is a prevalent and multifaceted issue that demands a holistic, collaborative approach to create meaningful change. One of our goals as Equal Justice Works Fellows is to build a cohesive network of service providers in Antelope Valley, one of Los Angeles County’s most rural locations. With this goal in mind, we began our Fellowships by asset mapping, a “systematic process of cataloging key services, benefits, and resources” within a specified community.

Elder abuse is a prevalent and multifaceted issue that demands a holistic, collaborative approach to create meaningful change.

We reached at least 2,000 community members and partners through asset mapping and developed a network of resources and strategic partnerships with legal organizations, government offices, service providers, community leaders, nonprofits, and religious institutions with the capacity to serve older crime victims. Our Fellowships address different aspects of elder abuse: mitigating abuse through restraining orders and addressing financial exploitation through the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. Building an elder resource network has provided a vital intersection where we meet to ensure our clients’ holistic needs are met.

Taylor Amstutz: Elder Abuse Restraining Orders

During my Fellowship, which focuses on elder abuse intervention, I’ve had the privilege to assist and represent many older adults in successfully obtaining protection from abuse through Elder Abuse Restraining Orders (EAROs). These Orders are inherently designed to address the heightened vulnerability of older adults and individuals with disabilities to abuse. Commonly, elder abuse occurs when an older adult allows their grown child to move into their home with the understanding that they’ll help with caregiving or managing the house, but then things go terribly wrong, resulting in an abusive arrangement. Isolation, manipulation, and other forms of abuse are all used to control victims, making even leaving their room a fearful, anxiety-inducing experience. An EARO can protect elders from further danger by keeping abusers from approaching or contacting them and, in some cases, can intervene quickly to have the abuser removed from the home.

Thankfully, not even a global pandemic could stop Bet Tzedek Legal Services from bringing justice to older survivors of abuse. At the beginning of the pandemic, our EARO Clinic pivoted to an entirely remote format. As a result, we are now able to assist individuals throughout the county without unduly burdening them with travel to a single location. Whether my day involves outreach to community partners, raising awareness, going to court, or running our remote clinic, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to be part of the journey of so many on the path to justice.

I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to be part of the journey of so many on the path to justice.

Archie Roundtree Jr.: Homeownership Preservation

Through my Fellowship, I provide coordinated, comprehensive legal services to elder homeowners who are victims of fraud and abuse to preserve their homeownership and home equity. One of my areas of focus is the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which is intended as a method for qualifying homeowners to finance energy-efficient retrofits or water conservation improvements. In its simplest terms, PACE collects payments for home improvements through property taxes to eliminate the up-front costs of energy-efficient retrofits. The program was designed to give access to energy-efficient improvements but has often been used by unscrupulous actors to exploit vulnerable families.

Generally, financing is sold door-to-door by contractors who target older adults, underserved communities, and minorities. These contractors promise home improvements with no upfront costs. Exploitation occurs when a homeowner agrees to costly construction projects and the contractor receives payment directly from the PACE administrator, sometimes without delivering any home improvements. It is only when the next property tax bill arrives that the homeowner learns they’ve been scammed—for example a simple $8,000 work project can cost upward of $79,000 over a 20-year period due to charging exorbitant interest rates. Communities are ravaged by these unfortunate loans because homeowners can suddenly owe far more in property taxes than they can afford to repay. Remedies can be hard to come by because PACE is arguably a tax, and administrators claim that consumer protection law does not apply. Nevertheless, we have been able to help homeowners using a combination of strategies ranging from regulatory complaints to individual and class litigation.

Elder Justice Program Impact

Not only do we provide legal services to older victims of crime, but we also conduct outreach to identify potential victims and spread the word about abuse, exploitation, and victims’ right. Using intergenerational communication, legal services, and education outreach, we’re able to equip the older adult community with tools they need to advocate for themselves and ultimately help remove barriers to achieving justice for those who have been exploited and abused.

Visit here to learn more about the Fellows in the Elder Justice Program who are addressing the gap in civil legal services for victims of elder abuse and exploitation.

The Elder Justice Program is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime (OVC), Award Number 2019-V3-GX-K033. This federal funding is supplemented by funds from private donors. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow