Elder abuse and exploitation is a silent crisis affecting every corner of our country. Whether it’s abuse in an assisted living facility or a parent being exploited by an adult child, elder injustice happens more often than you might think.
Each year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of adults over the age of 60 are physically or emotionally abused, neglected or financially exploited, and 1 in 10 older adults experience abuse. But many cases go unreported because victims fear retaliation and shame or are physically or mentally unable to report.
Public interest law is an essential tool to help curb abuse and support victims of elder abuse. The challenge is how to ensure that public interest lawyers (of whom there is already a shortage) are well placed to meet the needs of older adults, especially in underserved communities.
In rural areas, for example, injustices against older people are less likely to be addressed because access to essential legal aid is even more limited. Attracting legal talent with a passion for public service is a challenge everywhere, but especially in rural areas where salaries are lower and locations are often remote. Rural legal aid organizations and nonprofits simply cannot afford to pay entry-level attorneys a salary that a New York firm has no qualms about offering.
Yet the need is great.
Attorney Megan Wood’s commitment to public interest law led her to do this work at Prairie State Legal Services, serving 17 rural central Illinois counties. Wood has dedicated her legal career to serving her community as a legal aid advocate and has seen the impact that abuse and exploitation have on older people in her community.
Through her two-year fellowship with Equal Justice Works, Wood pursues public interest law and serves seniors in need of legal assistance — as a client we’ll call “Susan.”
Susan was being harassed by her former intimate partner, who was sending messages from fake phone numbers and social media accounts and using her social security number to fraudulently withdraw credit cards in her name. Wood helped Susan obtain a two-year protective order from her former partner, and when the harassment continued, Wood pleaded for Susan with the state’s attorney, which resulted in the abuser being charged with two different offences.
To address credit card fraud and identity theft, Wood worked with Susan to freeze the credit on her accounts and contacted the credit card company to have the debt written off as fraud so that Susan wouldn’t not be responsible for it.
Wood’s work has changed Susan’s life, but this type of hands-on, client-focused advocate is not readily available to the hundreds of thousands of seniors impacted by elder abuse and exploitation. These services should be the rule, not the exception.
To make legal aid more accessible, especially in rural communities, we must make investments to ensure that public interest law is an accessible career option.
Scholarship programs are part of the solution, but programs like the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF, are another necessary benefit. Many would-be public servants are barred from pursuing careers in the public interest because of heavy student debt (and in this case, law school debt). In October, the Ministry of Education took a step in the right direction by introducing a temporary waiver allowing borrowers to receive credit for prior repayment periods who would otherwise not qualify for PSLF, expanding the access to over 550,000 borrowers. Public programs like PSLF make engaging in a career in public service much more viable for those with school debt.
Public interest lawyers work day in and day out to advance equal justice, ensuring that underserved communities have access to essential legal services. Many are also working to improve local and national infrastructure that has allowed injustices to continue. In the case of elder abuse and exploitation, Wood works not only directly with clients, but also on education and outreach to older adults, social service providers and law enforcement to prevent abuse and serve victims in a sustainable way.
As a society, we need to invest more deeply in our country’s passionate public service leaders who support greater access to justice on issues of elder abuse, as well as housing insecurity, disaster resilience , immigration, voting reform, LGBTQ+ rights and more.
We must stop ignoring issues of injustice and build a stronger pool of public servants who are willing to do this work, thereby improving our national response to a multitude of issues affecting individuals and their communities, including older people.
Allie Yang-Green is Senior Public Programs Manager at Equal Justice Works, where she supports federally funded Cohort Fellowship programs, including the Elder Justice Program.
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