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 →
In one of the best known elder abuse cases, Philip Marshall advocated for Brooke Astor, his grandmother, and successfully stopped the financial exploitation and psychological abuse perpetrated by her son. I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Mr. Marshall and discuss his experience and key lessons elder justice professionals can learn from this case.
Mr. Marshall discovered that his father was financially exploiting and isolating Ms. Astor and petitioned for guardianship, which removed his father’s power over Ms. Astor. Following the guardianship case, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, lead by its Elder Abuse Unit, opened a criminal investigation resulting in multiple convictions of elder abuse and financial exploitation including that of Mr. Marshall’s father. The results of the criminal trial informed out-of-court probate proceedings. Through the effort of the Attorney General, and in accordance with Ms. Astor’s testamentary wishes, charities were awarded tens of millions of dollars that his father had tried to direct to himself.
Many older adults and family members may not have the multitude of resources which Ms. Astor had, yet this elder abuse case includes helpful lessons elder justice professionals can use when working with clients and families touched by elder abuse.
Increase awareness and understanding of guardianship, PoA, and capacity among families and the public
Mr. Marshall had a deep understanding of advanced care planning and capacity because of his experiences with helping to care for other family members. As a result, he examined more carefully his grandmother’s cognitive capacity and realized that this made her vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Increasing available information provided to families about guardianship, Power of Attorney (PoA), and capacity will help family members understand these complex issues and be able to recognize abuse and exploitation. This also highlights a particular role for medical professionals who can discuss the nuances of capacity and decision-making ability with patients and families during annual checkups particularly when there is a diagnosis of dementia.
Reach out to other family members
Mr. Marshall represents an example of a non-abusing family member who became an asset for the care of Ms. Astor and for the criminal prosecution of her abuser. While his father was the abuser, he feels that “to be complacent about elder justice is to be complicit in elder abuse” and felt compelled to act in order to ensure that his grandmother could live with dignity.
Aging professionals may have difficulty engaging family members outside of the primary caregiver; however, it is important to look for opportunities to partner with other family members. These family members may be a great asset and also recognize abusive situations that of which professionals are unaware. A key component of this engagement is to provide families with counseling and support. This is necessary so that the family can support the victim and reporter and identify and support those family members who may have a harder time with the case or the steps needed to react.
Educate families about all the options and resources available to respond to abuse
Mr. Marshall had great legal support and advice, which allowed him to understand that a guardianship would be sufficient to ensure the safety of his grandmother. As such, he pursued guardianship rather than reporting the abuse to Adult Protective Service or law enforcement.
Many families are reluctant to report to law enforcement because they do not want the abuser to face criminal consequences. They may also have fears about reporting to Adult Protective Services (APS) because of the uncertainty of what will happen once APS is alerted. Thus, aging and elder justice professionals should educate families about all of the options available to respond to elder abuse, including clarifying the role of law enforcement and APS in elder abuse prevention and discussing any fears associated with contacting those systems. Additionally, it is important to tell families about resources available that may be able to help such as legal aid, health care, temporary shelters and social service providers. (Available services vary from community to community.) Yet families also need to know that a response that is useful for one situation may not be the right approach for another. In many cases, involving APS and/or law enforcement will be crucial to preventing future abuse. And finally, families also should know that a professional informed about the abuse may be mandated to report the case to APS. (Mandated reporting laws vary from state to state.)
Support Families and Loved Ones During and After Reporting
The process of responding to abuse, be it pursuing guardianship or a criminal trial, can be long and arduous, especially for those who witnessed the trauma of abuse and are required to testify. Mr. Marshall’s experience with the district attorney’s office was incredibly positive and they felt very supported through the entire process. Without such support many survivors many be re-victimized.
Providing support and counseling throughout this process and after the cases are closed, or after the victim has passed away, is incredibly important. Mr. Marshall also highlighted the importance of connecting victims and families to help with the recovery process as well as to build a community where survivors can learn from and support each other.
The process of reporting and responding to abuse can be incredibly difficult and traumatizing for victims, families, and friends. Learning from previous cases of what was helpful and what could have been better supported will allow us to improve the response to elder abuse and limit the trauma that victims and families face.
We are incredibly grateful to Mr. Marshall for sharing his story so that others may benefit, his dedication to the field of elder justice (as exemplified by his recent testimony), and his tireless dedication to his grandmother and her memory.
By Elizabeth Bloemen, MPH, NYCEAC Social Media Associate
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