Vivianne Mbaku, Senior Staff Attorney at Justice in Aging

The NYC Elder Abuse Center at Weill Cornell Medicine (NYCEAC) is highlighting the voices of individuals and organizations working to advance racial equity within the elder justice field. This month, we feature Vivianne Mbaku, Senior Staff Attorney at Justice in Aging.

Founded on the belief that all people should have the opportunity to live with dignity regardless of financial circumstance, Justice in Aging uses the power of law to strengthen the social safety net and remove barriers low-income seniors face in trying to access the services they need.

Vivianne joined Justice in Aging in April of 2018 as a staff attorney in the Los Angeles office working on Elder Abuse issues. Before joining Justice in Aging, Vivianne was a Staff Attorney for the Utah State Courts Self Help Center and practiced consumer and public benefits law with Utah Legal Services. Vivianne was also a member of the Utah State Bar Modest Means Committee which aimed to make affordable legal representation more widely available. Vivianne also completed an appellate clerkship with the Honorable Senior Justice Petra Jimenez-Maes of the New Mexico Supreme Court. After her clerkship, Vivianne moved to Los Angeles to practice public benefits law at Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. Vivianne is a 2012 graduate of the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law and earned a B.A. in Politics and Latin American Studies from Scripps College.

We asked Vivianne some questions about her work, the intersections of racial equity and elder justice, and the importance of developing trauma-informed and culturally competent frameworks among professionals in this field. See her complete responses below!

The Interview: Conducted by Francesca Kabemba (NYCEAC EMDT Program Specialist) and Deena Schwartz (NYCEAC EMDT Team Coordinator )

Can you explain the work that you do and how your views on racial equity and elder justice inform your work?

I am a Senior Staff Attorney with Justice in Aging working on elder justice issues. The majority of my work is providing technical assistance and trainings to legal services attorneys serving older adults throughout the country through the National Center on Law and Elder Rights (NCLER). Through NCLER I create trainings and resources that assist legal services attorneys in better serving their older adult clients. In addition, I also work on California state specific elder justice issues. Most recently I participated in crafting the elder justice goals for the California Master Plan on Aging. At its core, I believe that racial equity is a key component of elder justice work. To protect older adults from abuse and exploitation, we must not only uplift older adults but also, we must center the lived experiences of older adults of color when providing services.

I believe that having a racial equity lens is critical in elder justice work because ….

The elder justice and elder abuse prevention world remains overwhelmingly white, while our older adult population is rapidly diversifying. Older adults of color do not see themselves represented in those advocating for them and there needs to be more discussion and insight into providing responses that actually take into account the lived experiences of older adults of color. For example, Black older adults are more likely to not seek out services and supports for abuse and exploitation for fear of negative interactions with the police and social service agencies. A racial equity lens is critical in addressing these sometimes-hidden disparities among older adults. If we truly aim to fulfill the elder justice tenet of “ending and preventing elder abuse” a racial equity lens is absolutely necessary.

Can you provide some examples in your work that demonstrate the reason why racial equity work must be approached from an intersectional framework?

For example, it is common for newer legal services attorneys to become frustrated when their clients refuse to seek available help for abuse or exploitation. To the attorney, the solution to their client’s problems may seem obvious: report the abuse to the police, or file a report with Adult Protective Services. An equity approach that takes into consideration the lived experiences of the client often reveals where the reluctance originates. The client may be fearful of police or APS interaction because of their immigration status, race, or previous negative interactions with these officials. They may also be reluctant because they fear the revelation of private information about themselves like sexual orientation. I advise these newer attorneys to take these issues into consideration at the outset of representation and center their clients’ lived experiences when addressing their problems. Further, I encourage them to not judge the actions of their clients, because clients know what is best for them.

Tell us more about the importance of having a trauma-informed and culturally competent framework. How do the two intersect/overlap? How do you incorporate this into your work now, and how do you want to see this transform in the future?

I see trauma-informed lawyering and culturally competent lawyering as two overlapping disciplines that must be used in tandem. Racial trauma is real. The physical and mental impacts of systemic discrimination, bias, and violence against people of color can negatively impact their functioning and their ability to advocate for themselves. In addition, impacts of any trauma compound with age. Trauma can impact the lawyer-client relationship in many ways. Clients who have experienced trauma may be reluctant to recount the details of their experience or distrust their attorney and the institutions that they represent. Further, attorneys may be suffering the effects of vicarious trauma or “burnout” from working with clients experiencing trauma. An attorney suffering from a trauma exposure response may find it difficult to empathize with clients and therefore implement culturally competent practices. By engaging in trauma-informed practices, attorneys can prevent needless re-traumatization of clients, keep trauma from negatively impacting the lawyer-client relationship, and protect their ability to continue assisting clients in an ethical and holistic manner.

In my work currently, I present on trauma-informed practices and the impact of secondary trauma for legal services attorneys. In the future, I hope to see all legal services attorneys implementing trauma-informed practices and for these skills to be a requirement in law schools throughout the country.

How do you think/hope your work will reframe the concept of “justice” especially as it relates to policing and the criminal justice system?

I hope that the concept of justice within the elder justice realm can broaden, and turn to focusing on centering the older adult victim and their goals.   We know that the majority of elder abuse is committed by a family member or close contact of the older adult victim. When trust is broken between two parties who already had an existing relationship, remedying the relationship is complicated. We cannot expect all older adults to want to cut off contact with their adult child or family member just because abuse was committed. We can also simultaneously want individuals to be held accountable for their actions and hope to prevent them from committing these abusive actions again.

By listening first to the older adult, about what their idea of justice is and creating a system that is flexible enough to offer more options than just policing and prosecution, we honor older adults’ decision-making skills and their desire to preserve existing relationships. This is where I believe restorative justice principles may be useful. Restorative justice has already been used successfully in the juvenile offender context and may be useful in some elder abuse cases as an alternative to policing. Further, restorative justice may also be a more meaningful way to address the complex familial relationships that exist in many elder abuse cases.