Improving the National Response to Elder Abuse and Exploitation

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.

EQUAL JUSTICE WORKS ANNOUNCES LAUNCH OF THE SECOND YEAR OF ELDER JUSTICE AMERICORPS PROGRAM

Washington, D.C. June 1, 2017 – Equal Justice Works today announced the continuation of the Elder Justice AmeriCorps program. This program is the first of its kind to provide high-quality legal services to low-income older adults who have been victims of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

There is an ongoing need for legal representation of older adults in the United States. A 2015 study by the National Center on Elder Abuse highlighted that over 10% of seniors in the United States, which is approximately five million people a year, experience elder abuse such as neglect and financial exploitation. Of these five million Americans, only 1 in 24 reports the abuse to authorities.

An important component of the Elder Justice AmeriCorps Program work is developing multi-disciplinary teams of social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials trained to recognize when abuse is occurring and to refer victims and their families to legal aid offices and other social services to address the abuse. In the first year of the program, our 25 Elder Justice AmeriCorps Fellows have screened 1,633 clients for elder abuse, opened 854 cases, resolved legal issues for 327 clients, and have trained over 180 legal professionals on elder abuse issues and therefore significantly increasing the knowledge and skills in this field. All Fellows have formed or developed strong multi-disciplinary teams with social workers, medical professionals, law enforcement, and adult protective services staff to enhance the provision of comprehensive services to elderly victims of abuse.

In its second year, the Equal Justice Works Elder Justice AmeriCorps program is seeking results-oriented host organizations. Selected organizations will act as hosts to Fellows and law students providing direct legal services to victims of elder abuse. Each Fellow will focus on the formation of multi-disciplinary teams focused on elder abuse issues, the recruitment and training of legal professionals on elder abuse, and the provision of direct legal services.

The Elder Justice AmeriCorps program is funded by the Justice Department’s Elder Justice Initiative, Office for Victims of Crime and CNCS, the federal agency which administers AmeriCorps and other national service programs. This new effort is also supported by the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice.

Interested in applying to be an Elder Justice AmeriCorps Fellow? Learn more about the program here.

Returning host organizations, apply here!

Interested in becoming a host organization? Click here.

Interested in or have questions about applying to the Equal Justice Works Elder Justice AmeriCorps program? Contact Taí Merey Alex at [email protected].

This is a guest blog post from justice AmeriCorps Fellow Charity Ramsey (’15), of Kids in Need of Defense in Seattle, Washington.

My name is Charity Ramsey, and I am an AmeriCorps member serving at Kids in Need of Defense in Seattle, through the justice AmeriCorps program. AmeriCorps has facilitated my dream job. I became an attorney because I care deeply about social justice issues and wanted to do something about things like trafficking, genocide, and domestic violence. I wanted to be equipped to stand up as a voice for those who do not have a voice, for the oppressed and the downtrodden, for those with educational and language barriers keeping them from standing up for their rights, oftentimes at the cost of their lives. Because of justice AmeriCorps, I get to do just that—stand up for voiceless children in our immigration system.

Through justice AmeriCorps, I have been able to provide direct legal representation to 68 Central American immigrant children who otherwise would have had to represent themselves in front of an immigration judge. These children arrived at the US border alone and scared, fleeing from things far more frightening than immigration officials or the journey itself. Instead, they fled from severe, life-threatening violence such as physical and sexual abuse, forced participation in gang activity or sexual servitude, and threats of death. When they face deportation, they risk being sent back into violence with no one to protect them, because the governments of their home countries do not have the capacity to stop the violence.

For these children, having an attorney is in itself a victory. They have someone to stand in the gap for them, to help them understand the process and overcome their fears, and to tell their story in a way that shows why they qualify for protection in the United States. With someone to be that voice, these children are five times more likely to win their cases.

Serving as the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, I have been able to help 6 children obtain legal status in the United States.  There are an additional 45 applications for relief pending so far. I am only one of many fellows in the justice AmeriCorps program. There is still much work to do, but we are up to the challenge, and through justice AmeriCorps we will get things done.

This is a guest blog post from Elder Justice AmeriCorps Fellow Mara Casseday (’16), of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Richmond, Virginia.

I always knew I wanted to live a life of public service. After spending ten years in the military, I became a civil rights and then a legal aid paralegal, eventually going on to law school. There I continued doing public interest work, both as a volunteer during the academic year and as a summer associate. The opportunity to join AmeriCorps presented itself shortly after graduation, and I jumped at the chance.

Working in the Elder Justice program has been eye opening. Approximately 1 in 10 Americans over 60 have experienced some type of elder abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. A study by the National Academy of Sciences estimates that only 1 in 14 cases are reported to authorities. The consequences of poverty are made much worse by abuse, neglect, or exploitation, and recovering from being a victim of those crimes is often an uphill battle for the poor. Over 25 million Americans aged 60 and over are economically insecure, living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level. 21% of married Social Security recipients and 43% of single recipients aged 65 and over depend on social security for 90% or more of their income (SSA, 2016). In 2015, 2.9 million households with a senior experienced food insecurity, and 60% of older adults eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are not enrolled.

As an Elder Justice Fellow, I serve the civil legal needs of indigent older adults who have been victimized by abuse, neglect, or financial exploitation. Early on in service, it became clear that recovery from abuse does not end with prosecution of the perpetrator. The senior may need a new caregiver or someone to assist in supported decision-making, or may need help with obtaining a protective order against a family member or caregiver perpetrator. The senior may need new estate planning documents. They may require assistance in obtaining or maintaining safe and supportive housing, whether private, voucher-based, or public. To alleviate poverty, particularly after being financially exploited, seniors may need help obtaining public benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid/Medicare, long-term care Medicaid, and Social Security. Finally, consumer issues such as problems with debt relief scams, predatory lending, lending discrimination, financial exploitation, and other scams must be dealt with to keep seniors financially healthy. I have helped clients find safe housing and advised them on money management for future Medicaid planning. I have assisted clients in obtaining their identification documents after their theft by abusive family members, and getting a new guardian after the old one became neglectful. Finally, I have provided information and teaching on scams aiming at seniors and how to avoid them, helping seniors keep from being easy targets for rip-off artists.

Helping elders secure and maintain a good quality of life in their twilight years has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am thankful to AmeriCorps for providing the change to make a difference to some of the most vulnerable in my community.

The Department of Justice and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) announced the launch of the Elder Justice AmeriCorps, the first program of its kind to provide high quality legal services to low-income older adults who have been victims of abuse, neglect, or exploitation.

There is a profound need for legal representation of older adults in the United States.  The justice gap for victims of elder abuse is even greater than that for low-income individuals generally. A 2015 report showed that over 10% of seniors in the United States, approximately five million people a year, experience elder abuse such as neglect and financial exploitation. Of these five million Americans, only 1 in 24 report the abuse to authorities.

The Elder Justice AmeriCorps program is funded by the Justice Department’s Elder Justice Initiative, Office for Victims of Crime and CNCS, the federal agency which administers AmeriCorps and other national service programs.  This new effort is also supported by the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice.

Equal Justice Works will receive $1.4 million over two years to deploy 150 AmeriCorps Members each year – 25 full-time practicing lawyers and 125 minimum-time law students – and an additional 300 pro bono volunteers, who will provide civil legal aid to an estimated 8,000 low-income adults. Equal Justice Works will partner with nationally renowned organizations that specialize in training lawyers who serve vulnerable adults and address elder abuse.

“Equal Justice Works is thrilled to be a part of the inaugural launch of Elder Justice AmeriCorps.  This ground-breaking program will reduce instances of abuse and build a network of lawyers dedicated to elder justice,” said Equal Justice Works Executive Director David Stern. “Elder Justice AmeriCorps will improve lives through direct legal service and will serve as a catalyst for enhancing public awareness of elder abuse.”

An important component of this work will be to create multi-disciplinary teams of social workers, medical professionals, and law enforcement officials trained to recognize when abuse is occurring and to refer victims and their families to legal aid offices and other social services to address the abuse. This increased capacity to recognize and respond to abuse will help to address the abuse while it is occurring and reduce the frequency of elder abuse over time.

Equal Justice Works Elder Justice AmeriCorps Members and volunteers will provide high quality civil legal aid services to abused elders at approximately 17 established legal aid organizations in approximately 17 states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, New York, Texas, Washington, D.C., Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, and Virginia.

Equal Justice Works is the national leader in creating public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers. Collaborating with the nation’s leading law schools, law firms, corporate legal departments and nonprofit organizations, Equal Justice Works offers a continuum of opportunities that provide the training and skills that enable attorneys to provide effective representation to underserved communities and causes.  Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.