Advancing Justice for Older Adults

By 2020 Fellows Taylor Amstutz and Archie Roundtree Jr.

June 15 marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which highlights the widespread issue of harm and exploitation perpetrated against older adults. Anyone can be a crime victim, but specific demographic groups may be targeted and have unique legal needs. To address these needs, Equal Justice Works formed the Elder Justice Program in 2020. Taylor Amstutz and Archie Roundtree Jr. are Fellows in the Elder Justice Program at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles and, in honor of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, they shared how they collaborate to promote access to justice for older adults in their communities.

Elder abuse is a prevalent and multifaceted issue that demands a holistic, collaborative approach to create meaningful change. One of our goals as Equal Justice Works Fellows is to build a cohesive network of service providers in Antelope Valley, one of Los Angeles County’s most rural locations. With this goal in mind, we began our Fellowships by asset mapping, a “systematic process of cataloging key services, benefits, and resources” within a specified community.

Elder abuse is a prevalent and multifaceted issue that demands a holistic, collaborative approach to create meaningful change.

We reached at least 2,000 community members and partners through asset mapping and developed a network of resources and strategic partnerships with legal organizations, government offices, service providers, community leaders, nonprofits, and religious institutions with the capacity to serve older crime victims. Our Fellowships address different aspects of elder abuse: mitigating abuse through restraining orders and addressing financial exploitation through the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. Building an elder resource network has provided a vital intersection where we meet to ensure our clients’ holistic needs are met.

Taylor Amstutz: Elder Abuse Restraining Orders

During my Fellowship, which focuses on elder abuse intervention, I’ve had the privilege to assist and represent many older adults in successfully obtaining protection from abuse through Elder Abuse Restraining Orders (EAROs). These Orders are inherently designed to address the heightened vulnerability of older adults and individuals with disabilities to abuse. Commonly, elder abuse occurs when an older adult allows their grown child to move into their home with the understanding that they’ll help with caregiving or managing the house, but then things go terribly wrong, resulting in an abusive arrangement. Isolation, manipulation, and other forms of abuse are all used to control victims, making even leaving their room a fearful, anxiety-inducing experience. An EARO can protect elders from further danger by keeping abusers from approaching or contacting them and, in some cases, can intervene quickly to have the abuser removed from the home.

Thankfully, not even a global pandemic could stop Bet Tzedek Legal Services from bringing justice to older survivors of abuse. At the beginning of the pandemic, our EARO Clinic pivoted to an entirely remote format. As a result, we are now able to assist individuals throughout the county without unduly burdening them with travel to a single location. Whether my day involves outreach to community partners, raising awareness, going to court, or running our remote clinic, I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to be part of the journey of so many on the path to justice.

I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity to be part of the journey of so many on the path to justice.

Archie Roundtree Jr.: Homeownership Preservation

Through my Fellowship, I provide coordinated, comprehensive legal services to elder homeowners who are victims of fraud and abuse to preserve their homeownership and home equity. One of my areas of focus is the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which is intended as a method for qualifying homeowners to finance energy-efficient retrofits or water conservation improvements. In its simplest terms, PACE collects payments for home improvements through property taxes to eliminate the up-front costs of energy-efficient retrofits. The program was designed to give access to energy-efficient improvements but has often been used by unscrupulous actors to exploit vulnerable families.

Generally, financing is sold door-to-door by contractors who target older adults, underserved communities, and minorities. These contractors promise home improvements with no upfront costs. Exploitation occurs when a homeowner agrees to costly construction projects and the contractor receives payment directly from the PACE administrator, sometimes without delivering any home improvements. It is only when the next property tax bill arrives that the homeowner learns they’ve been scammed—for example a simple $8,000 work project can cost upward of $79,000 over a 20-year period due to charging exorbitant interest rates. Communities are ravaged by these unfortunate loans because homeowners can suddenly owe far more in property taxes than they can afford to repay. Remedies can be hard to come by because PACE is arguably a tax, and administrators claim that consumer protection law does not apply. Nevertheless, we have been able to help homeowners using a combination of strategies ranging from regulatory complaints to individual and class litigation.

Elder Justice Program Impact

Not only do we provide legal services to older victims of crime, but we also conduct outreach to identify potential victims and spread the word about abuse, exploitation, and victims’ right. Using intergenerational communication, legal services, and education outreach, we’re able to equip the older adult community with tools they need to advocate for themselves and ultimately help remove barriers to achieving justice for those who have been exploited and abused.

Visit here to learn more about the Fellows in the Elder Justice Program 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.

By Allie Yang-Green, senior program manager of public programs, and 2020 Fellows Barbara Harris and Amy Perry. Barbara is hosted by Montana Legal Services Association and Amy is hosted by Equip for Equality.

Guardianship* or other forms of supportive decision-making may become necessary to ensure the safety and quality of life when individuals lose the capacity to make decisions about their health care, finances, or other aspects of life. This may occur due to dementia, stroke, brain injury, or other serious health issues. When a guardian or an otherwise authorized agent fails to act in a protected adult’s interest and undermines their ability to direct their own life, legal advocacy is a critical resource safeguarding their rights.

In rural Montana, Jerry* lived in his own house while experiencing physical and mental health declines as he grieved the loss of his wife. One of Jerry’s sons convinced Jerry to put his name on the home’s deed and allow him to move into the house. As Jerry’s health further deteriorated, his son and grandson tried to move Jerry to a long-term care facility, reporting false claims to law enforcement that he exhibited signs of violence and dementia. They also spent Jerry’s money for their own uses. Jerry’s medical providers did not believe the claims of the son and grandson and supported his independence, giving Jerry the opportunity to leave his home and stay with another relative to avoid the abuse.

To exert a greater control, Jerry’s son and grandson petitioned the court for guardianship, alleging Jerry’s deteriorating abilities. Although a temporary guardianship was granted, 2020 Fellow Barbara Harris intervened to represent Jerry’s interest and prevent the son and grandson from becoming Jerry’s permanent guardians and moving him into a long-term facility against his wishes.

Another common tool used to help manage older adults’ affairs is a power of attorney (POA), where a person designates someone as their agent and determines which powers to give to them. POAs can be created easily without a lawyer. However, abuse can occur through POAs when an agent fails to honor their duty to act consistently with the directions and interests of the principal. Moreover, the private nature of POA’s can also lead to abuse being undetected.

Following a stroke, Jim* had appointed his relative as a POA for healthcare decisions, but this POA agent breached fiduciary responsibility by not paying three months’ worth of charges for Jim’s residential rehabilitation facility. With help from the local Area Agency on Aging, Jim was able to get the POA agent revoked and name new agents for his healthcare and Social Security benefits. In response, Jim’s relative petitioned the court for guardianship so that he could gain greater control over Jim and his estate. Jim was referred to 2020 Fellow Amy Perry, who was able to successfully argue before the court to prevent the agent’s request to access the client’s medical information, protecting Jim’s right to privacy. Amy continues to litigate the case and protect Jim’s independence and financial well-being.

Upholding the rights of older adults to make their own decisions based on their own values and preferences to the greatest extent possible is central to client-centered legal advocacy.

Certain situations may call for attorneys to assess the client’s mental capacity and even take reasonable protective actions but upholding the rights of older adults to make their own decisions based on their own values and preferences to the greatest extent possible is central to client-centered legal advocacy. Amy notes that ageism and ableism present in our society can result in systemic prejudice against older clients, and advocates must always take steps to support the maximum empowerment of all clients and their rights to direct their own lives.

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

* The term “guardianship” is often used interchangeably with “conservatorship” and any other term for the judicial process of appointing a fiduciary to manage all or part of the financial and/or personal affairs of an individual.

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

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.

Resources on Guardianship and Supportive Decision-making: 

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.

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.

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.

By Benjamin Taylor and Megan Wood, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellows in the Elder Justice Program. Benjamin is hosted by Legal Aid Society of Louisville and Megan is hosted by Prairie State Legal Services.

WARNING: This blog post contains descriptions of sexual violence some may find disturbing

In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, we wanted to share our experience serving survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence as Fellows in the Elder Justice Program.

Sexual violence is experienced by millions of Americans each year and most crimes are never reported to law enforcement. Victims choose not to report sexual violence to police for many reasons including fear of retaliation, shame, embarrassment, and to protect the perpetrator.

There is no such thing as a “typical” sexual assault. Nor does sexual assault have a “typical” victim. Sexual assault impacts all genders, races, and ages. Older adults make up less than 5% of victims who report sexual assault, but studies estimate that 2 to 8% of older adults have experienced sexual violence within the past year. Most older adult victims of sexual assault experience violence where they live, whether it’s in a care facility or personal home, and perpetrators are often someone the victim knows. It is important to combat ageist attitudes about sex and understand that sexual assault is about power and control so that people later in life can access respectful, victim-centered help when they need it.

As Fellows, we have represented several older victims of sexual assault, providing victim-centered, trauma-informed legal services to help restore their safety and well-being. As illustrated in the examples shared below older sexual assault victims often experience multiple types of abuses and severe trauma, and the challenges of serving those clients intensify when the client experiences diminished capacity.

Gloria* came to Megan after she was raped by her former intimate partner, who later became her caretaker following a stroke. Though they likely had consensual sexual contact in the past, the more recent sexual contact was without Gloria’s consent. Following a report to Adult Protective Services, Gloria’s caseworker helped her detail the sexual and physical abuse in a petition for a civil order of protection and seek an emergency order. Megan represented Gloria in a hearing to obtain a two-year protection order. In the course of representation, Megan learned that Gloria had diminished capacity, and that there were other forms of abuse occurring, namely medical neglect and financial exploitation.

Gloria’s children urged her to report the abuse to police and share videos of sexual abuse taken by the abuser. However, Gloria clearly expressed reservation about sharing these videos with law enforcement. For Gloria, justice meant having a safe home, a civil order requiring her abuser to stay away, access to her doctor, and counseling. She was willing to cooperate with a criminal investigation, but was not willing to share the videos that she did not give her consent. As civil legal aid providers, we can counsel our clients on the vast array of options, from advocacy in a criminal prosecution to housing remedies and employee leave under the Victim’s Economic Security and Safety Act. Despite diminished capacity, we must maintain as normal an attorney-client relationship as possible. We can and must also seek to understand the wishes of our client rather than substituting the wishes of their agent or loved one(s). Above all, a trauma-informed approach to sexual assault cases requires respect for the individual’s privacy and their wishes.

Ben met Joan*, 63, after she filed a petition for a Civil Protective Order against her husband, who was a heavy drinker and had beaten Joan on a weekly basis. In addition to the physical violence committed against her, Joan told Ben that her husband often demanded sex with her and she didn’t feel like she had a choice; she did what she had to do to keep him from becoming angry and violent. Ben represented Joan and obtained a No Contact Order against her husband that ended the physical and sexual assaults.

Joan’s abuse illustrates the complex issue of consent that lies at the heart of all sexual assault cases. While there is no “typical” form of sexual assault, all sexual assault involves sexual conduct committed without the consent of the victim. Consent is not determined only by whether a partner says “Yes” or “No,” however. As Joan’s case demonstrates, there may be a power imbalance between two individuals that prevents a “Yes” from creating a truly consensual interaction. The law recognizes these imbalances in a wide array of relationships including those with minors, people with disabilities, and workplace subordinates. Likewise, where a history of violence places a partner in fear of what may happen if he or she says “No” to sex, the ability to receive real consent is hampered by the looming threat of violence that hangs over a victim’s every decision. In such cases, acquiescence can be an act of survival rather than consent. As practitioners, it’s important for us to realize that our clients may be experiencing serious trauma even when their experiences don’t fit neatly into our preconceived notions of what victimization looks like.

This April, we recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month and all those victimized by sexual assault. We also recognize that there are many faces to victimization and that all victims have a unique story that deserves to be heard. As Fellows in the Elder Justice Program, we will continue to seek out civil remedies for people like Gloria, Joan, and the many older victims of crime in communities across the country.

*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.

By Adam Dexter and Heather McKinney, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellows in the Elder Justice Program. Adam is hosted by Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc. and Heather is hosted by Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas.

Equal Justice Works Fellows working in the Elder Justice Program serve older adult victims of crime in response to epidemic levels of elder abuse in the United States. Although cases of elder abuse and exploitation are very common, they are not always easy to spot at an initial client meeting. Public interest attorneys are uniquely positioned to identify abuse against older adults and help them recover, not only through civil legal remedies, but also through targeted referrals.

Here are six ways to combat elder abuse in any practice area.

1. Appreciate the Extent of Elder Abuse in Our Society

The Elder Justice Act of 2009 defines elder abuse as “the knowing infliction of physical or psychological harm or the knowing deprivation of goods or services that are necessary to meet essential needs or to avoid physical or psychological harm of an individual age 60 or older.” At least 10% of people 60 and older experience abuse, and most of these crimes go unreported; studies suggest as few as 1 in 24 cases of elder abuse are ever reported. The trauma of elder abuse can lead to hospitalization, depression, social issues, and financial loss, all of which contribute to diminished independence and quality of life.

Financial exploitation of older adults is especially prominent, with financial institutions reporting $6 billion in actual or attempted elder financial exploitation between April 2013 and December 2017. Financial exploitation produces harm beyond the loss of money. Friends or family, unscrupulous businesses, phone and online scammers pretending to be government agencies like the IRS or Medicare, are all potential perpetrators. Older adults also suffer enormous losses from romance scams on online dating platforms and social media sites like Facebook, where bullying of older adults by family members, in addition to scams, cause tremendous shame and isolation, which exacerbates the likelihood of other forms of abuse and exploitation.

2. Understand the Causes and Conditions that Lead to Elder Abuse

Abuse comes in many forms, but one near universal underlying factor is social isolation. Even older adults in a community or living with family can be isolated. A genuine support structure and knowledge of and access to resources are a lifeline for older adults.

The isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has made older adults an even bigger target. Their regular, in-person connections to their communities such as church, community groups, and family visits have been limited for their safety. This lack of connection gives abusers like unscrupulous caregivers and romance scammers the opportunity to take advantage.

Perpetrators of elder abuse tend to go “where the money is.” In poorer rural areas where suffering spans much wider than elder abuse, an older adult’s social security check may be a household’s only sure income. Ancillary forms of abuse may be caused by underlying attempts to access that steady cash flow. Follow the clues and consider that your client may not tell you everything you need to know up front.

3. Watch for Signs with Every Older Client

Graphic of common signs of abuse, neglect, and exploitation

Prevention can be just as important as restitution. Be attentive to common red flags even if the client is coming to you for an issue unrelated to elder abuse. Indicators of abuse can include physical, behavioral, and emotional signs. The National Center on Law & Elder Rights has this checklist to help legal practitioners identify elder abuse.

For example, a client may call asking for assistance with an eviction because they owe past-due rent. By asking probing questions, an attorney may uncover that the rent has gone unpaid due to familial financial exploitation. Now the attorney is better equipped to help the person with revoking a misused power of attorney or changing a Representative Payee for Social Security payments in addition to aiding with stopping the eviction.

While it does not require expert knowledge to spot elder abuse, communicate with your screening and intake staff about what to look out for and common red flags. With just a handful of signs, anyone who encounters an older adult should be able to flag elder abuse and exploitation and make appropriate referrals.

4. Pay Attention to Your Client’s Capacity and Be Clear Who Your Client Is

Questions of a client’s cognitive capacity may come up during representation and research shows that people with dementia are at greater risk of elder abuse. Assessing capacity is necessary to determine whether the older adult properly executed a contract, is able to complete advanced planning documents like a power of attorney, or even has the mental capacity to hire the attorney. Balancing respect for autonomy while guarding against undue influence is tricky but crucial. The American Bar Association offers a number of guides and references on their website.

Well-meaning family members may apply for services on behalf of older adults. Keep in mind that the older adult is your client, not the family member. Talking to your client alone at the start of representation and periodically meeting one-on-one with an eye toward potential undue influence is crucial for fact-finding and to build trust. Strained or tense relationships between a caregiver and older adult may be a sign of abuse. Domestic violence advocates have developed a power and control wheel that serves as an important tool in this space.

5. Always Advocate for and Empower Your Client

Clarify the client’s goal in your initial conversation and work with them toward that end. Understand the importance of independence for your clients, while balancing their need for care. Clients almost always view nursing homes, guardianships/conservatorships, and reporting to Adult Protective Services as a last resort.

Always ask follow-up questions and check-in after long silences. Silence may not mean the client has lost interest in their case; consider that silence might be a strategy to cope with the stresses of abuse or health issues. Be aware that some signs of dementia may be signs of underlying health problems. For example, urinary tract infections can cause hallucinations and confusion, while many signs of depression overlap with early dementia symptoms. Assess whether the client is truly disinterested or struggling with a cognitive issue, or if they simply lack access to physical health or mental health resources.

6. Develop Resources for Referrals

Work with your organization to create a list of outside resources and community programs that will help clients access mental health counseling and support them in their recovery. If they exist in your area, make contact with local multidisciplinary teams using the Department of Justice’s Elder Justice Network Locator Map. Connections with agencies like Adult Protective Services or the District Attorney’s office facilitate and expedite direct referrals. Know whether you are a mandatory reporter and, if so, under what circumstances reporting is required and how to complete the process. The National Adult Protective Services Association offers an easy-to-use map to find out how to report suspected abuse in your area. Create a list of non-litigation reporting resources such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or your state’s attorney general’s office but know when and why litigation may be the best way to achieve justice for your client. In some instances, older adults have been exploited by known individuals making civil litigation the best course of action for obtaining recovery. When an older adult has been the victim of a widespread scam, it may be impossible to pursue action against the perpetrator. In that case, the FTC or state attorney general’s office may be better suited to help.

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.

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.

 

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.

Each year on December 10, Human Rights Day gives us a chance to reflect on the work that needs to be done to ensure that every single person—regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status—can access their unalienable rights and freedoms. It is also a chance to celebrate the work of Equal Justice Works Fellows who work tirelessly to protect our universal human rights and advocate for underserved communities across the country.

Photo of Madeline Middlebrooks

Madeline Middlebrooks, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Faber Daeufer & Itrato PC, supports low-income African American families on the lead contamination water crisis in St. Louis area schools. While the United Nations General Assembly has recognized the human right to clean drinking water, the United States does not recognize this right under any federal laws. In 2016, water samples from 16 schools in the Saint Louis area contained high levels of lead contamination. Madeline is working with her host organization, Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, to address this issue through advocacy efforts at the state level and by representing affected community members.

“Environmental statutes and public health regulations should benefit everyone, not just the wealthy. Your ZIP code or the color of your skin should not dictate your quality of life in regard to exposure to toxins and pollution,” said Madeline.

Environmental statutes and public health regulations should benefit everyone, not just the wealthy. Your ZIP code or the color of your skin should not dictate your quality of life in regard to exposure to toxins and pollution.

Madeline Middlebrooks /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

By connecting with community members in the field, sending record requests to state agencies, and analyzing water sampling results, Madeline is helping to address this environmental disparity and ensure that children have access to clean drinking water in St. Louis schools.

Photo of Archie Roundtree Jr
Photo of Archie Roundtree, Jr.

The United Nations General Assembly has also identified housing as a fundamental human right, yet millions of Americans struggle to afford a place to live. At Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Archie Roundtree, Jr., a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Elder Justice Program, works on preserving homeownership and home equity for senior homeowners who are victims of fraud and elder abuse.

The pandemic has exacerbated fraud targeted at senior homeowners, such as deed theft and home improvement scams. Archie advocates for clients through negotiations, appeals, and civil legal options to obtain much-needed relief and protections. He also conducts community outreach and education on social service resources, home equity protections, and crime victims’ rights, to reduce older individuals’ susceptibility to these scams.

“Standing up for equality and justice means not allowing the systemic oppression for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is about empowering the community and having the humility to understand it is not about you,” said Archie, on what service means to him.

Standing up for equality and justice means not allowing the systemic oppression for those who cannot speak for themselves. It is about empowering the community and having the humility to understand it is not about you.

Archie Roundtree, Jr. /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

Photo of Sarah Nawab

In an environment like jail or prison, where incarcerated people face serious human rights violations daily, Sarah Nawab, a 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow cosponsored by General Electric Company and Choate, Hall & Stewart LLP, is determined to bring incarcerated women and the unique challenges they face during incarceration to the forefront of prisoners’ rights advocacy.

Incarcerated women face a lot of the same challenges as incarcerated men—inadequate medical and mental health care, brutality, and poor conditions of confinement—in addition to more unique challenges such as inadequate pregnancy and reproductive health care, and sexual violence by staff. The pandemic has also greatly exacerbated existing issues of inadequate medical care, and the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19 has been “detrimental to my clients’ mental health,” Sarah noted.

With her host organization Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, Sarah provides trauma-informed advocacy and rights education to ensure that women can access adequate medical and mental health care and are protected from predatory assaults. She is also building relationships with community-led organizations to strengthen advocacy.

Service means letting my clients lead, and showing up for my clients the way that they want me to, rather than presuming their needs. Equality and justice mean using the resources and systemic access I will have as a lawyer, not to speak for my clients, but to pass them the mic.

Sarah Nawab /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

We are proud of how Madeline, Archie, and Sarah are standing up for equality and justice and doing critical work to uplift lives and communities. To learn more about how our Fellows are creating a lasting impact in their communities, click here.

The Elder Justice Program is supported under grant 2019-V3-GX-K033, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this press release are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. This federal funding is supplemented by funds from private donors.