Supporting Fellowships that Help Older Survivors of Domestic Violence Regain Agency Over Their Lives

/ Blog Post

By Laura Roach, program manager at Equal Justice Works

October is nationally recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month and this year’s theme is #Every1KnowsSome1 to highlight how common this form of abuse is in our communities. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience domestic violence in their lifetimes, resulting in impacts like injury, safety concerns, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and needing victims’ services such as legal assistance.

The population of the United States is getting older and the proportion of older adults is growing—people age 65 are expected to represent 21.6% of the population by 2040. As the older adult population grows, so does the potential for elder abuse to become more prevalent.

Elder abuse is already a pervasive and underreported problem, with studies showing that 1 out of every 10 people age 60 and older experience some form of abuse. A significant portion of abuse in later life is perpetrated by a current or former spouse or intimate partner, which classifies the victimization as domestic violence. Domestic violence later in life is distinguished from other forms of elder abuse for being perpetrated by a current or former intimate partner to gain and maintain power over the victim through violence or coercive tactics, such as isolation, threats, intimidation, manipulation. Perpetrators of domestic violence also often exploit their victims financially, making it more difficult for the victims to escape the abuse.

Equal Justice Works Fellows in the Elder Justice Program provide trauma-informed civil legal services to older adults who have experienced one or more forms of victimization, including domestic violence. Since the program first launched in July 2020, the 22 Fellows have provided direct legal services to more than 1,000 older victims of crime across 11 states. Of the older adults served by Fellows, 12% of them received services related to domestic violence.

In one case, client Susan* was being stalked by her former intimate partner who sent messages from fake phone numbers and social media accounts, and used her social security number to fraudulently take credit cards out in her name. Fellow Megan Wood at Prairie State Legal Services in Illinois helped Susan obtain a two-year order of protection from her former partner, but the stalking continued. Megan advocated for Susan with the State’s Attorney, and the abuser was charged with two different misdemeanor violations. To remedy the credit card fraud and identity theft, Megan worked with Susan to place a credit freeze and contacted the credit card company to have the debt written off as fraud so that Susan would not be responsible for it.

Many older adults are vulnerable to abuse because they require support from a caregiver. Fellow Andrea Marcin at Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Services helped her client Stanley* escape from exploitation perpetrated by his wife. Stanley’s wife of 25 years had isolated him from his family, forced him to work well past retirement age, and neglected his medical needs. She also took out at least two life insurance policies on his behalf and a fraudulent Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan using his old business’ information. After enduring much abuse, Stanley confided in his daughter, and she asked him to come live with her so she could help support him. To help Stanley regain control of his finances and credit, Andrea worked with him to execute a Power of Attorney naming his daughter as Agent so she could help him cancel fraudulent accounts and policies. Andrea was also able to get the fraudulent PPP loan cancelled before it was disbursed.  With Anrea’s help, Stanley is living safely and is happy to be able to see his grandchildren.

Domestic violence can have long-lasting and devastating effects, but lawyers can help victims regain agency and independence. For example, Fellow Caitlin Corey at Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas (LANWT) helped her client Eva* begin to recover from an abusive marriage. Eva’s spouse had abused her physically years prior, and the violence had evolved into verbal and emotional abuse. To cope with the trauma, Eva stayed in one bedroom of her home and never ventured into the common areas when she was at home. The police were called multiple times when verbal arguments with her spouse escalated to the point where Eva feared for her safety. Her abusive spouse also stalked her at work. Caitlin worked with Eva to secure a temporary restraining order and to file for divorce. Additionally, Eva received support from a social worker at LANWT to draft a safety plan. Caitlin reports, “I am grateful I have had the opportunity to represent the client and even without the divorce being finalized, I have seen how the client has been able to start the healing process and how this divorce will help her recover after decades of abuse.” Recently, Eva’s divorce was finalized, and she was granted exclusive use and possession until the home is sold.

This October, Equal Justice Works recognizes Domestic Violence Awareness Month and all those victimized by their partners. We will continue to support Fellowships that help survivors of domestic violence recover on their own terms and regain agency over their lives.

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

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.

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