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Safeguarding the Dignity and Security of Older Adults Through Legal Responses

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By Allie Yang-Green, senior manager at Equal Justice Works

One of the lesser-known effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased prevalence of elder abuse and neglect. “Elder abuse” denotes the abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation that older adults experience by those close to them as well as strangers. Research suggests that the rates of elder abuse in the United States have nearly doubled during the pandemic, affecting one in five older persons. Many older adults have experienced increased isolation, limited access to services, and pandemic-related financial strains due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Elder abuse is a significant public health and human rights problem that needs better understanding and a concerted effort to address it.

Text graphic: Nearly 1,500 older adults received legal assistance since the Elder Justice Program's launch in July 2020.In July 2020, in the early months of the pandemic, Equal Justice Works launched the Elder Justice Program to raise awareness about the prevalence of elder abuse and to address the gap in civil legal services for those experience elder abuse. Through this program, Equal Justice Works mobilized 22 Fellows across the country with an emphasis on serving rural communities. The Elder Justice Program was built on Equal Justice Works’ successful history of mobilizing lawyers to increase access to justice for survivors of abuse including elder abuse in prior years. Since the Elder Justice Program’s launch in July 2020, Fellows have collectively provided legal assistance to nearly 1500 older adults, and addressed various legal issues—financial exploitation, identity theft, fraud, domestic violence, physical assault, bullying, and harassment. While holistic and community-wide responses are necessary to stem these abuses in a systemic way, civil legal intervention as provided by the Fellows, has been a critical tool to help older adults achieve physical safety and financial recovery.

Text graphic: Nearly 30% of the older adult clients served by the Fellows have experienced financial exploitation.Nearly 30% of the older clients served by the Fellows have experienced financial exploitation, which occurs when a person misuses or takes the assets of another person for their personal benefit, depriving them of vital financial resources for their needs. The National Council on Aging estimates that the cost of elder financial abuse and fraud to older Americans ranges from $2.6 billion to $36.5 billion annually. These abuses are particularly challenging to address when committed by family members who exploit positions of trust, causing financial hardship for victims and eroding familial connections. Through client-centered lawyering, Fellows are helping older adults who have experienced exploitation by their loved ones recover.

For example, Fellow Caitlin Corey at Northwest Texas Legal Assistance assisted an older adult in maintaining financial security by avoiding a debt judgment of over $12,000, resulting from financial exploitation. The client’s grandson took out a credit card in her name without her knowledge and stopped making payments when he lost his job. When the client sought legal help, Caitlin represented the client in a lawsuit brought for the credit card debt, negotiated a dismissal of the lawsuit for hardship and helped to avoid a large debt judgment.

At Legal Aid Society of Louisville, Fellow Benjamin Taylor helped an older client whose wife had been forging his signature and skimming money from his pre-marital assets. The client who was facing a second bout of cancer wanted to get a divorce to protect his remaining assets. Benjamin met with the client at his rural home and conducted all court proceedings for his divorce remotely so he could maintain his financial security without leaving his home and risking his health.

Caitlyn and Benjamin’s cases illustrate the crucial role of legal help from Fellows who are trained to focus on serving rural communities where access to legal services is limited. These cases also underscore why a person-centered legal service is of the utmost importance when family members are perpetrators of harm. Combining direct legal services with extensive education and outreach activities in their communities, Fellows in the Elder Justice Program are helping to improve the national response to elder abuse and create a society where all people—regardless of age—can live with dignity and security.

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

This program is supported by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, 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