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Tackling the Gap in Civil Legal Services for Victims of Elder Abuse

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Photo of Vanessa Arrieta
Photo of Vanessa Arrieta

Vanessa Arrieta, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow, recently spoke with us about addressing the gap in civil legal services for victims of elder abuse, and shared how she is collaborating with other Fellows in the Elder Justice Program to help improve the national response to elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

World Day of Social Justice, an international day recognizing the need to promote social justice and tackle issues such as poverty, exclusion, human rights, and social protections, will be celebrated tomorrow (February 20). In what ways do you promote social justice for the communities you serve? 

I work to promote social justice by providing free legal representation and opportunities to people who need them but would otherwise not have access due to lack of resources (not being able to afford a private attorney), or simply lack of information. At my host organization, Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, we help with issues that affect underprivileged and often ignored communities, such as housing, discrimination, abuse, and exploitation.

What are some of the barriers your clients face in accessing civil legal services? How are you helping them to overcome these barriers?

The biggest barrier I’ve found is lack of information regarding the services available to them. We do outreach to spread the word about the services we provide, but COVID-19 has made this more difficult particularly in my field. My clients are 60 and up, many of whom don’t really use the internet or have a smartphone. In that sense, inter-agency meetings have been very valuable for spreading the word about the services we provide to others.

The pandemic has drastically changed the legal services landscape. What new challenges have you noticed this past year, both for you and for your clients? How are you continuing to provide key legal services while balancing public health concerns? 

I have found that not being able to meet with clients in person, considering my clients are in a high-risk population for COVID-19, has been one of the biggest challenges. I had a case where there was a fear that my client might have been a victim of exploitation by her son, whom she lived with. Every time I would call her, her son would always be around. Our office was not meeting with clients in person, but I had to make a special request and arrange everything to be able to meet with my client by herself, in person, without the presence of her son, in a socially distanced and very sanitized setting.

Through the Elder Justice Program, you have the opportunity to learn from and leverage the expertise of other Fellows in the program. What has the overall experience in the program been like so far? Can you share an example of how you have collaborated with other Fellows in the program? 

One of my favorite things about the Elder Justice Program is that it conducts bi-monthly trainings, with the opportunity to ask questions or discuss some of the current cases you have. One of the benefits of this is that you realize that you are dealing with the same issues that other Fellows in other parts of the country are also dealing with. Because of the difference in expertise and background, you can brainstorm and ask questions about how they solved it, or get new ideas on how to tackle some issues.

One of my favorite things about the Elder Justice Program is that it conducts bi-monthly trainings, with the opportunity to ask questions or discuss some of the current cases you have.

Vanessa Arietta /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Who are some key community partners you work with (or plan to collaborate more with) to facilitate holistic services for your clients?

I would love to be able to collaborate with the State Attorney’s Office, particularly when it comes to tackling the mass amounts of scams targeting the older population in my county. There are other smaller local coalitions, such as the mental health coalition or the veteran’s coalition that I would also love to partner with and be able to provide these services to my clients.

What advice do you have for other public interest lawyers working on the same issue? Can you share a few lessons you’ve learned when it comes to providing legal services to victims of elder abuse and exploitation? 

I have three pieces of advice for other public interest lawyers working on similar cases:

  • Set aside any preconceptions you may have about the older population in regards to their capacity and decision making. Treat each case individually and determine capacity on a case-by-case basis.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’ll get all types of different cases, so reach out to other more experienced attorneys or other Equal Justice Works Fellows if you are not sure how to tackle an issue.
  • Develop healthy mechanisms to cope with the stress. Public interest jobs can be very stressful and busy, though they make for rewarding work. It’s important to have healthy activities outside of your job. 

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, visit here.

 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