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Building a Nationwide Coordinated Response to Combat Elder Abuse: The Story of the Elder Justice Program

/ Blog Post

By Touri Goode, program specialist at Equal Justice Works

Elder abuse is a prevailing issue that often goes underreported in the United States. In fact, studies show that 1 out of every 10 people age 60 and older will experience some form of abuse—financial fraud and exploitation, physical, sexual, and/or psychological abuse.

Challenges such as social isolation, poverty, limited transportation, physical health and cognitive decline make older adults especially susceptible to victimization. Unfortunately, many older adults do not seek help because they fear blame or negative outcomes involving their family members. In many cases, victims are unaware of their rights and potential legal remedies.

Across the country, countless communities face a shortage of public interest lawyers who have the skills and training to provide holistic representation to older victims of abuse. That’s why in 2020, Equal Justice Works launched the Elder Justice Program, mobilizing 22 Fellows (lawyers) to improve the national response to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Through the program, Fellows served at legal services organizations where they helped to increase access to justice for victims of elder abuse by enforcing victims’ rights and providing holistic legal representation.

During the two-year Fellowship, program participants made significant strides toward addressing the gap in specialized legal services for older victims of abuse. Elder Justice Program Fellows provided direct legal services to 2,058 individuals on issues ranging from financial exploitation, domestic violence, protection orders, public benefits, guardianship, and more. Here are some Fellow highlights:

  • 2021 Fellow Karen Kammholz at the Legal Assistance of Western New York, represented a man whose granddaughter unlawfully took possession of his retirement property. After two years of litigation, Karen was able to obtain a settlement which included the man’s granddaughter being ordered to pay a lump sum of $155,000 and make the mortgage payments for the property.
  • Cortney Sweat, a 2020 Fellow at Indiana Legal Services, Inc, helped to promote the launch of the Indiana Legal Risk Detector (ILRD), a resource that continues to be used at her host organization. As part of the launch, Cortney led a training for local service providers on how to use the detector and explained how it could aid service providers in getting their clients access to legal services. Due to the success of the training, ILSI received offers from Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders and the Indiana State Bar Association Women in Law Conference organizers to present the ILRD at upcoming events.
  • Andrew Lakin, a 2020 Fellow at Legal Aid of the Bluegrass assisted a client who was a victim of financial exploitation. His client was sending money to a charity for months until they eventually realized they were being scammed. Although, his client lost large amounts of money due to the fake charity scam, Andrew was able to stop future payments from leaving his client’s bank account, reported the fraud to the FBI, and helped protect the client from further exploitation.

Fellows in the program also conducted 763 outreach activities; trained 7,805 attorneys and allied professionals on a variety of topics including advanced planning, protection orders, and cultural competency; and participated in 533 multidisciplinary teams or coalition activities. With many of the Fellows serving clients in rural communities, Fellows had to rely on creative workarounds and innovative approaches to conducting outreach. For example, 2020 Fellow Amy Perry at Equip for Equality used a portable projector to deliver presentations at senior centers, which proved to be very helpful for those who couldn’t travel.

In addition to direct legal representation and outreach activities, Fellows helped to build capacity within their organizations and communities. Fellows implemented 23 planned improvement initiatives, including data collection plans, refining intake processes, and training community-based organizations. Many of the Fellows have stayed on at their host organizations, continuing to address the civil legal needs of older crime victims.
Equal Justice Works is building on its successful history of mobilizing passionate public service leaders who can address crime victims’ rights. This year, we launched the Crime Victims Advocacy Program, which will increase access to legal aid to survivors of crime, especially in underserved black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities.

To learn more about the Elder Justice Program visit here.

This program is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, Award Number 2019-V3-GX-K033. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice or Equal Justice Works.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow