Elder abuse and exploitation is a silent crisis affecting every corner of our country. Whether it is mistreatment at an assisted living facility or a parent exploited by an adult child, elder injustice is happening more often than you might think.
Each year in the United States, hundreds of thousands of adults older than 60 are physically or psychologically abused, or neglected or financially exploited. One out of 10 older adults experience elder abuse. But many of the cases go unreported because victims experience fear of retaliation and shame, or are physically or mentally unable to report it.
Public interest law is one critical tool to help curb elder abuse and support victims. The challenge is how to ensure that public interest lawyers (of which there already is a shortage) are positioned to respond to the needs of older adults, especially in underserved communities.
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In rural areas, for example, elder injustices are less likely to be addressed because access to critical legal aid is even more limited. Attracting legal talent with a passion for public service is challenging everywhere, but especially in rural areas where salaries are lower and locations often are remote.
Rural legal aid organizations and nonprofits simply cannot afford to pay entry-level attorneys the salary that corporate New York City firms have no qualms offering. The need, however, 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 counties in central Illinois. Wood has dedicated her legal career to serving her community as a legal aid lawyer. She has seen the impact that abuse and exploitation has on older adults in her community.
Through her two-year fellowship with Equal Justice Works, Wood is pursuing public interest law and serving older adults who need legal help.
One client was being stalked by her former intimate partner, who sent messages from fake phone numbers and social media accounts, and also used her Social Security number to fraudulently take credit cards out in her name. Wood helped the client obtain a two-year order of protection from her former partner.
When the stalking continued, Wood advocated for the client with the state’s attorney. This led to the abuser being charged with two different misdemeanor violations.
To remedy the credit card fraud and identity theft, Wood worked with the client to place a credit freeze on her accounts. Wood also contacted the credit card company to have the debt written off as fraud so the client would not be responsible for it.
The work Wood did was life-changing for the client, but this kind of hands-on, client-centered lawyering is not readily available for the hundreds of thousands of older adults affected 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 need to make investments that ensure public interest law is an accessible career option.
Fellowship programs are one part of the solution, but programs like the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness are another necessary benefit. Many would-be public servants are barred from entering public interest careers because of burdensome educational debt (in this case, law school debt).
In October, the Department of Education took a step in the right direction by implementing a temporary waiver for borrowers to receive credit for past periods of repayment that otherwise would not qualify for PSLF — expanding access for more than 550,000 borrowers. Public programs like PSLF make embarking on a career in public service much more viable to those with school debt.
Public interest lawyers work day in and day out to advance equal justice, ensuring that underserved communities have access to critical legal services. Many also are in the business of improving local and national infrastructure that has allowed injustices to continue.
In the case of elder abuse and exploitation, Wood not only works directly with clients but also on education and outreach to older adults, social service providers and law enforcement. This prevents abuse and serves victims in a sustainable way.
As a society, we need to invest more deeply in our nation’s passionate public service leaders who are supporting better access to justice on issues of elder abuse, as well as housing insecurity, disaster resilience, immigration, voting reform, LGBTQ+ rights and much more.
We need to build a stronger pipeline of public servants who want to do this work — ultimately improving our response to a host of issues affecting individuals and their communities, including older adults.
Allie Yang-Green is a senior program manager of public programs at Equal Justice Works, where she supports federally funded cohort fellowship programs, including the Elder Justice Program.
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