The 2017 Oscar-nominated documentary Edith+Eddie tells the story of Edith Hill and Eddie Harrison, who marry in their mid-90s and become known online as "America’s oldest interracial couple". More than an inspiring love story, theirs also is a cautionary and heart-breaking tale about the state of elder justice and guardianship in the US as Hill's daughters battle over her care and the wishes of the couple to remain together. More →
Elder abuse cases are extremely complicated and often involve the need for one or more legal interventions. JASA, one of the NYC Elder Abuse Center’s (NYCEAC) partners and one of the largest and most-trusted non-profits serving older adults in NYC, has a unique program that offers social work and civil legal services specifically tailored to the complex needs of elder abuse victims. NYCEAC is excited to highlight JASA’s ground-breaking program entitled, Legal, Social Work, Elder Abuse Program (LEAP). I had the wonderful opportunity of interviewing Donna Dougherty, Esq., Attorney-in-Charge, for a look inside JASA LEAP and the unique role of an attorney in this work.
Overview of JASA LEAP
Elder abuse victims are often abused by someone close-a family member, such as an adult child or grandchild, or a close friend-causing victims tremendous conflict when determining how to respond to the abuse. JASA LEAP’s staff, sensitive to these complex family dynamics, recognized the need for a multidisciplinary approach with social workers and lawyers working together to provide no-cost social services and legal representation to clients. The first multidisciplinary team of lawyers and social workers was created in Queens, and LEAP now offers services in Manhattan and Brooklyn as well.
Empowering Victims of Elder Abuse
JASA LEAP uses an empowerment approach by understanding that clients are experts in their lives and need advocates who respect the ways in which they choose to respond to the abuse. LEAP offers a wide array of services including support groups, individual and family counseling, legal and supportive social services, home safety items (such as new locks, cell phones able to dial a 911 call, monitors and other devices), safety plans, emergency shelter and financial assistance. Often times, older adults utilize multiple services when dealing with abuse.
LEAP lawyers serve as legal advocates for older adults who are victims of elder abuse and understand their need for supportive counseling and referrals to other JASA services. There are currently four attorneys, including Donna, who work in the JASA LEAP program (three on a full-time basis and one on a part-time basis) and handle approximately 700 cases per year. These lawyers assist with legal issues that are collaterally associated with the elder abuse and work to ensure that clients are safe. LEAP lawyers provide legal advocacy, guidance and representation related to obtaining Orders of Protection, managing eviction and other housing issues, consumer issues, such as home improvement scams, foreclosures and predatory lending, navigating the criminal court system and more. The case example included below illustrates the work of LEAP staff.
Unique Aspects of Attorney Work with Elder Abuse Cases
“LEAP is a comprehensive program that provides assistance at every stage of our older clients’ lives. Our service model is flexible to allow the client to move in and out of our program as needed. We work with elder abuse victims for as long as they wish. We will always pick up the phone” –Donna Dougherty
Donna emphasized how important it is for LEAP lawyers to take a holistic approach in their work with victims of elder abuse. LEAP has found that factors such as the complicated family dynamics surrounding elder abuse cases cause the older adult victims in their program to follow through with legal interventions only 50% of the time. In addition, elder abuse victims often request that LEAP lawyers work with the abuser to resolve issues around public benefits or discharge planning. For example, when abusers are admitted to an inpatient mental health treatment setting or are in prison and are being transitioned back into the community, LEAP’s lawyers and social workers advocate to ensure an appropriate discharge plan—one that maintains the safety of the elder abuse victim—is put into place. With the abusers’ issues addressed, older adults often feel more comfortable proceeding with a legal intervention, such as an Order of Protection.
This is a very different reality compared to other kinds of legal work, such as eviction cases or long term care planning in the absence of abuse, where cases are often resolved more swiftly and individuals are more likely to follow through with legal interventions. This reality underscores the need for LEAP lawyers to understand the unique needs of elder abuse victims and accept that victims may reject legal interventions, even if the alternative is to remain in an abusive situation. When older adults choose to remain in abusive situations, the team works together to ensure that the person has a safety plan and remains engaged in the social services offered by LEAP.
In addition to the client services provided by LEAP, the team provides education to community members and professionals who work within legal systems. Team members have offered trainings on aging and elder abuse issues (such as the difficulty that older adults can have accessing courts) to judges and other members of the legal system unfamiliar with these concerns. As a result of this outreach, JASA LEAP, in collaboration with colleagues at the Family Justice Center, the Office of Court Administration for the State of NY, Brooklyn Family Court and the Kings County District Attorney’s Office, was able to bring the “Homebound Program” to the Family Court system in Brooklyn. The “Homebound Program,” provides virtual court access for older adults who are not physically able to appear in court because they are homebound or have a disability. This program was eventually replicated in Queens with the help of The Hebrew Home at Riverdale.
The advocacy work by LEAP and its colleagues has resulted in several other court accommodations that attend to the special needs of elder abuse victims. Examples include “time certain” appointments that can be arranged for older adults who are not able to wait in a court room until they are called to appear in court and access to comfortable waiting areas in the Family Justice Center.
JASA LEAP intervened in the case below.
All identifying information & case facts have been revised to protect confidentiality.
Janet Mar, a 95 year-old community residing woman, was being financially exploited and emotionally abused by her son, Jeffrey. She heard about a support group offered by JASA LEAP and courageously began attending and talking about what she was experiencing with Jeffrey. She learned from the LEAP social worker, as well as other group members, that she could work with a LEAP lawyer to pursue an Order of Protection against Jeffrey. This would prevent Jeffrey from being able to come near her and continue abusing her. While Ms. Mar was fearful of her money running out because she’d given so much of it to Jeffrey, and he said things to her at times that made her feel sad and very depressed, she didn’t want him to get into any legal trouble. Thus, she was very closed to the idea of taking any formal action. However, over the course of many, many months, the support she received from group members, coupled with forming a good relationship with the social worker, led to her working with a LEAP lawyer to pursue a two-year Family Court Order of Protection.
Ms. Mar questioned whether she was doing the right thing by pursuing an Order of Protection; however, the evening before she went to court, Jeffrey’s emotional abuse escalated to the point of physical violence and she decided that she just could not continue with the way things were going. As a result, she and the LEAP lawyer went into the court and successfully obtained an Order of Protection. Ms. Mar continued attending the support group because, even though she had the Order of Protection, she experienced a large amount of guilt and needed ongoing support and coordination of services to consistently uphold the Order of Protection and remain safe in her residence in the community.
The JASA LEAP program demonstrates the importance of social support and social services being offered in combination with legal services. Victims of elder abuse should be empowered and able choose how they would like to handle the abuse in the length of time they need. This program serves as a model that can be replicated in communities across the United States, but Donna noted that the lack of funding for the elder justice field presents a significant barrier in many communities. She commented on the terrific elder justice work happening in NYC and highlighted the efforts of a multidisciplinary group of local stakeholders who committed to fostering NYC elder justice programs despite ongoing funding challenges. Donna feels that this commitment has been a critical in creating such innovative programming throughout New York City.
Are you aware of other programs that respond to the legal needs of elder abuse victims? If yes, please post a comment about the program. If no, we would still love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts and reactions in the comments section below.
by Cara Kenien, LMSW, MPA Social Media Manager, NYCEAC & contributing author Donna Dougherty, Esq., Attorney-in-Charge, JASA