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Shedding Light on Elder Abuse & Exploitation During the Pandemic

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

As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s important to remember that some members of our communities have been hit harder than others by isolation, economic hardship, and other COVID-19-related challenges. Even before the pandemic, elder abuse was a growing problem with 1 out of 10 older Americans, an estimated 5 million people each year experiencing some form of elder abuse, neglect, or exploitation. The pandemic exacerbated this problem as older adults faced social isolation (a known risk factor for elder abuse) and reduced access to healthcare and other services.

On this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, we urge everyone to learn and recognize the signs of elder abuse and to help older adults when you suspect abuse.

Last summer, we launched the Equal Justice Works Elder Justice Program with funding from the Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, mobilizing twenty-two Fellows to help address the gap in civil legal services for victims of elder abuse and exploitation. Despite the many pandemic-related hurdles to reach older victims, the Fellows have been working tirelessly to provide holistic services in-person or virtually so that they can obtain justice for their clients and help them restore their dignity, safety, and financial wellbeing.

Here are stories from two of those Fellows:

At Legal Assistance of Western New York (LAWNY), Fellow Steve Palmer found that the pandemic exacerbated the challenges of low-income older adults living in isolated settings and magnified their vulnerability to abuse. Many of the cases that Steve has worked on this past year have involved issues such as identity theft, fraud, eviction, and sometimes a combination of all these issues like in his client Peter’s* case!

For about 10 years, Peter has not been able to work and has received disability benefits and rental assistance. When the state unexpectedly reduced his rental assistance alleging an increased income, Peter was sued for eviction after he failed to make rent payments. He came to LAWNY for assistance, where Steve investigated this claim and learned that someone had stolen Peter’s identity and fraudulently received unemployment benefits. Steve helped Peter to file an identity theft claim, restore his rental assistance benefits, and got the eviction case against him dismissed. Incidents of government benefits fraud and identity thefts have skyrocketed since the pandemic, victimizing many older adults like Peter. Without the legal help Steve provided, Peter could have faced homelessness during the pandemic.

Another Fellow in Elder Justice Program, Amy Perry at Equip for Equality, works to address elder abuse in rural Illinois and shares that her job is to empower older victims. Amy notes that an older adult with illiteracy, vision, hearing, motor skill or ambulatory challenges may not mention these problems because they are embarrassed or because they feel everyone is in too much of a hurry. Beyond resolving legal issues, Amy puts extra efforts to inquire, listen, and accommodate the individual needs of her clients.

The pandemic called for new types of accommodation on advocates to serve older victims. Amy’s client Sarah* is over 90 years of age and lives at an assisted living facility with restricted access due to the pandemic. Sarah was exploited by a former power of attorney who had sold her property without permission and needed to execute new powers of attorney. Determined to assist Sarah, Amy leveraged her organization’s status as protection and advocacy agency and argued for the client’s right to legal services. Once she gained access, Amy brought her own witnesses, who observed from outside Sarah’s door to minimize contact. For the visits, Amy prepared a mobile office in a rolling briefcase that included a laptop, printer, power and extension cords, a ream of paper, extra print cartridge, clipboards for client use, ruler and yardstick for pointers, sanitizing wipes to clean everything, and full PPE for herself and witnesses, as well as extras for clients if needed. Amy’s unrelenting effort to serve clients under severely restricted circumstances helped Sarah escape the abuses of a prior agent and regain agency over her finances.

The legal services provided by Steve and Amy are building blocks to coordinated national response to address elder abuse, to which all Elder Justice Program Fellows contribute by enhancing partnerships and educating community members and allied professionals about legal remedies for elder abuse.

To learn about the ways public interest attorneys can combat elder abuse in any practice area, read this post by Fellows Adam Dexter and Heather McKinney. Visit here for more information about the Elder Justice Program and the Fellows who are providing critical legal services to this vulnerable population.

*The name of the client has been changed to protect privacy. 

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