News

Improving the National Response to Elder Abuse and Exploitation

/ Blog Post

By Laura Roach, program manager at Equal Justice Works

Elder abuse is a pervasive and underreported problem in the United States. Studies show that 1 out of every 10 people age 60 and older experience some form of abuse, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and financial exploitation.

Older adults are especially susceptible to victimization because of social isolation, mental and physical health challenges, limited transportation options, and poverty—factors that are compounded in rural geographies and by the COVID-19 pandemic. Too often, older Americans do not seek help because they fear blame or other negative outcomes, or because they are unaware of their rights and potential legal remedies. It has been estimated that as few as 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse are reported with few of those ever being prosecuted.

Public interest lawyers can play a key role in addressing the many complex civil legal issues that arise from crimes against older adults. By using their knowledge and understanding of elder abuse, public interest lawyers can ensure that victims have access to the legal services and resources they need to restore their dignity, security, and financial safety.

With the population in the United States aging, and older people projected to outnumber children by 2034, there is a critical need for more lawyers who are trained to provide effective representation to older adults who being abused or exploited.

Public interest lawyers can play a key role in addressing the many complex civil legal issues that arise from crimes against older adults.

In July 2020, Equal Justice Works launched the Elder Justice Program in an effort to raise awareness of the prevalence of elder abuse and address the gap in civil legal services for older crime victims. The Elder Justice Program builds on the organization’s successful history of mobilizing lawyers to address crime victims’ rights, and is modeled on the organization’s Elder Justice AmeriCorps Program (Elder jAC), which ran from 2016 to 2018.

Elder jAC deployed a network of Fellows and 125 law students across 18 states, where they delivered direct legal services to more than 2,000 victims of elder abuse. Fellows in the program also increased the recognition of and responsiveness to elder abuse among social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement through training and outreach.

Like Elder jAC, the Elder Justice Program mobilizes a network of 22 Fellows who are hosted at 16 legal services organizations across the country. Fellows work on wide-ranging civil legal issues, while also helping to educate professionals and their communities at large about the signs of elder abuse and the civil legal remedies available through the Fellowship program.

For example, Fellow Elvis Candelario at New York Legal Assistance Group supports coordinated community efforts to address elder abuse by participating in a local multidisciplinary team on elder abuse with social workers, law enforcement, and medical personnel, and by providing information about legal interventions. To date, Fellows in the program have trained 582 professionals on topics like guardianship and advanced planning, conducted 217 outreach activities in their communities, and formed 46 new partnerships.

Despite pandemic restrictions, Fellows in the Elder Justice Program Fellows have been undeterred in finding ways to connect with this high-risk and sometimes isolated population. Fellow Heather McKinney at Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas appeared on Good Morning Texas to discuss COVID-19 scams targeting older adults. Another Fellow, Ben Taylor at Legal Aid Society of Louisville, developed an informational flyer with tips on avoiding emergent COVID-19 vaccine scams and distributed it to community partners, including the Louisville Metro Department of Health. In addition to educational information, the flyer included Ben’s contact information so that older adults who think they may be victims of a scam can reach out to him directly for help.

Despite pandemic restrictions, Fellows in the Elder Justice Program Fellows have been undeterred in finding ways to connect with this high-risk and sometimes isolated population.

Financial exploitation is the most common type of elder abuse addressed by Elder Justice Program Fellows—nearly 30% of the elder abuse victims the Fellows assisted during their first six months of the program were victims of financial exploitation. These cases are particularly challenging as many of them are perpetrated by family members. In one example, Fellow Vanessa Arrieta at Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Inc. helped a client recover stolen money after her son exploited his Power of Attorney to make withdrawals from her bank account without her authorization.

Part of the Elder Justice Program also involves Equal Justice Works teaming up with Justice in Aging to provide specialized training and resources to the Fellows. This helps the Fellows better serve their clients and meet their unique legal needs. Additionally, because of the cohort structure of the program, Fellows are able to collaborate closely and leverage their peer network to improve their legal practice. For example, while working on a complex financial exploitation case, Andrea Marcin at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service solicited advice from other Fellows to help secure a fair settlement for her client.

Building on the success of the Elder jAC program, the Elder Justice Program Fellows are increasing recognition of elder abuse, enhancing their communities’ capacities to address it, and working together to improve the national response to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Visit here to learn more about the work of the Elder Justice Program.

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