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May 12, 2020

Remembering Lori Stiegel (1957-2020)

By Erica Wood

The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 41, Issue  5.)

In 1989, a bright young attorney joined the staff of the ABA Commission on Law and Aging. Lori Stiegel came with a solid background in elder rights, having already served in the Senior Advocacy Unit of Bay Area Legal Services in Tampa, Florida; as legal services developer at the Georgia state office on aging; and as legal staff at The Center for Social Gerontology in Michigan. 

 In the late 1980s, the recognition of elder abuse, neglect and exploitation was gaining national attention. There were Congressional hearings and reports by the U.S. House Committee on Aging. In 1987, reauthorization of the Older Americans Act included passage of elder abuse prevention provisions.  in 1988, the National Center on Elder Abuse was established.  

 The ABA Commission had not yet developed expertise in the emerging elder abuse field, and Lori jumped in with vigor to fill the void, quickly becoming a major player in developing its legal aspects. From that time until her death in 2020, Lori was an unwavering elder justice advocate. 

At the same time, this bright young attorney had a fun social side that touched the lives of friends and colleagues over the years. While rigorously analyzing elder abuse laws and policies on the one hand, Lori also was into fashion, loved cosmetics, took yoga, and was always eager to go shopping. She became a skilled knitter and was an avid foodie – to the delight of those with whom she arranged restaurant outings. And then there was her humor: She was witty with well-timed wry remarks.

An Indelible Mark

Lori targeted the problem of elder abuse from many angles, always seeking to make law-related contributions and ultimately leaving an indelible mark that advanced change. Here is a synopsis of her accomplishments in the field.

How Lori Tackled Elder Abuse

Developed Judicial Guidelines.  In her early years at COLA, Lori observed that there were significant barriers to effective judicial consideration of cases involving elder abuse. In 1995, with funding from the State Justice Institute, she produced Recommended Guidelines for State Courts Handling Cases Involving Elder Abuse. This massive project involved some 300 individuals of diverse backgrounds in surveys and focus groups. As stated in the preface, it aimed to “benefit judges and court staff as they deal with the difficult issues and problems presented in elder abuse cases.” In 1997, Lori followed up with three model interdisciplinary curricula on elder abuse for judges and key court staff. The guidelines, together with the curricula, established a solid foundation on which future initiatives were to build.

Promoted Elder Abuse Fatality Review. Another creative way Lori jumpstarted action was through promoting development of elder abuse fatality review teams, a theme that spanned close to 20 years of Lori’s attention. These collaborative, cross-agency teams review deaths resulting from or related to elder abuse to identify system gaps and improve victim services. Through Lori’s leadership, COLA received a grant from the Office of Victims of Crime (OVC), U.S. Department of Justice, which provided seed funding for some of the earliest teams and led to publication in 2005 of Elder Abuse Fatality Review Teams: A Replication Manual. The comprehensive manual brought visibility to fatality review teams as an effective tool and offered resources and examples. A second grant by OVC in 2017 funded updates to the manual, a web page, and an assessment of the impact of the teams.  

Influenced Advocates About Undue Influence.  Another key theme for Lori was the role of undue influence in elder abuse, a topic on which she presented and wrote about over the years with Bonnie Brandl, Candace Heisler, Mary Joy Quinn and others. In 2006 Lori participated in the development of a training curriculum called Undue Influence: The Criminal Justice Response, funded by the Office of Violence Against Women, U. S. Department of Justice, and prepared for the YWCA of Omaha.

Magnified the Multidisciplinary Approach. Throughout her career, Lori staunchly supported bringing people from different disciplines together for the greatest impact on elder abuse. She was part of a six-person team that wrote a book setting out a “framework to begin and to build on multidisciplinary approaches at the local, state, and national levels to end elder abuse.”  Each of the co-authors (Bonnie Brandl, Carmel Dyer, Candace Heisler, Joann Otto, Lori Stiegel, and Randy Thomas) was from a different field: adult protective services, law enforcement, prosecution, health care, advocacy, and civil justice. The book, Elder Abuse Detection and Intervention: A Collaborative Approach, was published in 2007. The common goal of the authors was to “promote elder victim safety through collaboration.” This collaborative theme clearly informed her work on fatality review teams as well as her later efforts on targeting abuses in guardianship.

Spotlighted Power of Attorney Abuse. In 2008, as financial powers of attorney were being dubbed “a license to steal,” Lori turned her attention to power of attorney abuse. In an AARP Public Policy Institute research report, Lori, along with ABA Commission colleague Ellen Klem, produced a hard-hitting study that explored how state legislatures can protect vulnerable adults through safeguards in power of attorney laws. The report compared the abuse-related provisions of the 2006 Uniform Power of Attorney Act with provisions in state laws.

Profiled Landmark Elder Abuse Case. In 2009, jurors in a New York criminal court convicted 85-year-old Anthony Marshall of fraud and grand larceny against his mother, New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor, who had Alzheimer’s disease in her final years.

 Lori realized that the case presented an opportunity to raise awareness about elder abuse. She conducted a three-part interview with Alex Forger, an expert witness for the prosecution and a widely respected trusts and estate attorney who had earlier chaired the ABA Commission on Law and Aging.

In “The Brooke Astor Case: ‘An Appalling Set of Circumstances,” Mr. Forger talked about the lessons lawyers who represent older people should learn from the case, and explained how he prepared for the complex case, why he did it pro bono, and the ways in which Brooke Astor’s long-standing estate plan were changed by the events at issue. The interview appeared in the ABA Commission’s 2009-2010 e-journal BIFOCAL and continues to be an informative source about the lawyer’s role in elder abuse cases.

Assessed Court-Focused Elder Abuse Initiatives.  While Lori had laid a judicial foundation in 1995 with her court guidelines, she returned to it some 15 years later. Lori saw that some courts were focusing on elder abuse in a more holistic way through targeted judicial programs or partnerships. With an award from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, Lori joined with Dr. Pamela Teaster at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health Department of Gerontology to take a closer look at these court programs. 

 The result was a pioneering 2011 Multi-Site Assessment of Five Court-Focused Elder Abuse Initiatives. The purpose was to determine, through surveys, interviews and site visits, whether these innovative programs improved the criminal justice response to elder abuse. Overall, the findings said the five initiatives accomplished nearly 90 percent of COLA’s relevant 1995 recommended guidelines, enhanced access to justice for victims, and offered benefits to courts and other agencies. 

Educated Lay Fiduciaries. Millions of Americans manage money or property for a loved one who is unable to pay bills or make financial decisions, either as a court-appointed guardian, an agent under a power of attorney, a trustee of a revocable living trust, or as a government fiduciary. Under a contract from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Lori led an ABA team that helped the CFPB develop a plain-language guide for each of the four types of fiduciaries. Published in 2013, the four national Managing Someone Else’s Money guides were followed by selected state versions – ultimately 28 separate booklets plus Spanish translations. The columnist Dear Abby featured the guides twice, and close to 2 million copies have been distributed. Lori’s eye for precision and her rigorous review ensured the guides were practical tools that could instruct caregivers and lay fiduciaries throughout the nation.               

Created Pocket Tool for Law Enforcement. Lori had wide-ranging contacts including with police and sheriffs. She heard a remark by a retired sheriff that prompted a very creative idea. He said, “My colleagues and I need to know that when we’re told, ‘I could spend Dad’s money because I have his power of attorney,’ we shouldn’t just say, ‘Oh, OK,’ and walk out.” Lori conceived of a pocket-sized guide for law enforcement that would be easy to read, easy to carry, and could even be attached to the visor of a patrol car. In 2014, with funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, COLA published Legal Issues Related to Elder Abuse: A Pocket Guide for Law Enforcement, along with a longer desk guide providing more information.  It was a huge hit!

Educated Lawyers on Financial Exploitation. With elder financial exploitation being billed as the “crime of the 21st Century,” and elder investment fraud becoming more prominent, Lori secured a grant from the Investor Protection Trust and Investor Protection Institute to educate lawyers to recognize elder financial exploitation and investment fraud, and to report suspected cases to authorities. In her project survey of almost 700 legal practitioners, more than nine out of 10 said elder financial exploitation was a serious problem, and, shockingly, more than one in three said they were or may be dealing with such a victim. The kickoff event for the project was an ABA Annual Meeting Showcase Program with a distinguished multi-disciplinary panel -- including Lori as an expert panel member -- meant to serve as a model for states continuing legal education programs.  In 2017, the project developed an “Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation Checklist for Lawyers.” 

Tackled Guardianship Abuse.  While Lori did all of COLA’s work on elder abuse, and I focused on adult guardianship, we increasingly worked together at the intersection of these two areas. For example, in 1996 we co-authored an article exploring the potential of family court for strengthening elder justice. In 2009 we co-authored another article on ways in which the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act can help to address cross-border elder abuse issues. An early project for Lori was an examination of less restrictive alternative to guardianship.

 We both worked with the National Center for State Courts on a project funded by the Office of Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice, to examine financial exploitation by conservators (guardians of property), which resulted in publication in 2019 of Eight Background Briefs on Financial Exploitation by Conservators for policymakers and practitioners. Lori and I were jointly interviewed several times by the U.S. Government Accountability Office and joined forces in drafting congressional letters that involved both guardianship and elder abuse. We had many a good-natured debate about the extent to which the abuse side of guardianship should be emphasized as compared to issues of self-determination and autonomy.

But it wasn’t until WINGS (Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders) that our work completely coalesced.  COLA in 2016 received funding from the Administration for Community Living (ACL) to establish, expand or enhance state WINGS. The goals were to promote options for decision-making that were less restrictive than guardianship, improve state guardianship systems, and address guardianship abuse. 

Under the grant we funded seven state courts to create or strengthen WINGS.  Lori brought all of her elder abuse background to bear on the WINGS grant as well as her strengths in connecting people from different disciplines. She also brought tremendous experience in contract management, grant administration, and budgeting. We had not anticipated the complexity of managing seven state grants while navigating through both the ABA bureaucracy and the federal bureaucracy. Lori could be a stickler for detail (sometimes frustratingly so!) and it really paid off in WINGS. As a result, today we have active WINGS to varying degrees in some 23 states – groups that are engaged in reform to improve the lives of adults in, or potentially subject to, the guardianship system.

Lori’s Knitting Life

About 10 years ago, Lori took up knitting.  I remember the first thing she knitted was a simple blue scarf. Before long, with help from her colleague Trisha Bullock, she was showing us an assortment of her colorful creations.

Lori became a member of Ravelry, an online social media database of knitters and knitting patterns. Then she joined “Yarn Hoars,” a group made up of knitters from all over the world who work with hand-dyed luxury fibers like cashmere, silk and luxury blends. She made close friends in the group, and together they shared their love of making things, as well as fine dining and shopping. 

She and her colleague Trisha Bullock visited yarn and fabric stores in the Washington, D.C., area. “There was rarely a day at work where we didn’t eagerly discuss what projects we were working on, what new techniques we were trying, what luxury yarn or fabric we recently bought, or what festival we were planning to attend,” Trisha said.

Lori looked forward to special events such as the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival, New York Sheep and Wool, and the Homespun Yarn Party in Savage, Maryland. She also built an Instagram profile where she proudly displayed items she had knitted. 

Lori always brought her knitting to staff meetings. She founded a weekly knitting group at the ABA called Unwind.  Attendees joined together for an hour to work on projects and “to just unwind.” At these meetings Lori found opportunities to increase her proficiency in more complex knitting skills such as sweater knitting, lace knitting, brioche and mosaic knitting. 

 Lori loved knitting for her family, yoga instructor, friends, and ABA staff. She gave many gifts. Trisha recalled the last item Lori completed in December 2019.  It was a test knit of a hat pattern Trisha had designed in honor of Trisha’s sister who had recently passed away.  “It was clear that Lori was ill when she knit this hat for me. I can only imagine the effort it took her to finish it. I will carry that memory and gesture of love for me and her love for knitting forever,” Trisha said.

Some of Lori’s colleagues and friends had these comments and memories to share:

Lori was in the vanguard of the elder abuse and neglect field. Her work at the ABA Commission on Law and Aging was groundbreaking and visionary. She provided solid reliable guidance to practitioners both in the legal field and the social services field. She could be depended upon to ‘tell it like it is.’ She was a stalwart friend and mentor. Her voice will be sorely missed. --Mary Joy Quinn

In the 30 years Lori and I worked together, I always relied on her not only for her analytic expertise in law and aging, but even more so for her insistence on the highest standards for research and project management, and her ability to see how the bigger picture of personal and professional relationships and our mission can be in sync. Still deeper than her professionalism was her honest friendship, quick humor, and abiding loyalty. --Charlie Sabatino

Lori impressed us immediately with her sharp mind and her dedication to the public interest. Like me, she had started her career in legal services for low-income and older adults, so we had a bond. She was a true idea person and lively conversationalist. --Naomi Karp 

I will always remember Lori for her extraordinary intelligence and attention to detail; nothing slipped past her.--David Godfrey

As the newest Commission attorney, I had the good fortune to be Lori’s mentee for the last four years. Lori was a patient teacher, welcoming discussion and questions. She could also be a formidable critic, demanding excellence and accuracy in research and writing. She had a phenomenal political instinct and taught me a great deal about crafting effective policy. She has left so much behind in her legacy, including influencing me and no doubt many other attorneys working in the elder justice field. --Dari Pogach

Lori was passionate about yoga, knitting, shopping, and good food. Many of my fondest memories with Lori involve shopping for fun earrings and other jewelry. Whenever we were in the same city presenting at a conference, we would try to find artsy stores where we could escape for a few hours of laughter and fun.--Bonnie Brandl 

Lori Stiegel will be remembered for her devotion to cause and commitment to caring. Anyone who had the pleasure to work with her in any capacity was the better for it. I personally learned from Lori, was nudged by Lori, was even chastised by Lori on occasion and she was usually right to do so. Her contributions were many and will last for years.” --Bob Blancato

Thanks to Lori, there are Elder Abuse and Fatality Review Teams all across the nation. --Joanne Otto 

Lori was there at the beginning with elder death review teams. Her work has stood the test of time and in fact may be one of the most significant projects in elder abuse to date. --Ricker Hamilton 

She was a pioneer in many areas of the legal and policy needs of older adults including fatality review teams. --Carmel Dyer 

We came from different disciplines and wanted to demonstrate how each of us, working collaboratively across systems and disciplines, could improve the detection and response to elder abuse. Some two years later we had written a book and were still friends. --Candace Heisler

Lori’s contributions touched the lives of many vulnerable older Americans. We are grateful for her work. -- Carole Fleck

We quickly discovered we shared a passion for the issue of elder abuse and how systems should address the problem. She and I had those conversations that all friends should have: food, how the elder abuse field doesn’t measure up to our exacting standards, and how to retire gracefully. --Randy Thomas 

I remain forever grateful for Lori and her ability to fuel and launch advocacy from case to cause. By advancing the cause of elder justice nationwide, Lori was also able to help those of us who were close to the [Brooke Astor] case come to closure. --Philip Marshall 

I was honored when Lori asked me to be an investigator on [the court-focused elder abuse initiatives study]. I worked with Lori’s high standards and her commitment to making the world more just and safer for older people. It was during this project that I got to know Lori best – her love of great food, her love of knitting, her ability to drive and navigate to places, and her dexterity with computers. I also learned that Lori loved fashion, and I owe her my expanded understanding of fabric, style, and cut. --Pam Teaster 

Some of my very favorite knitterly memories are of Lori and the shenanigans she was a part of as booth neighbors at Homespun Yarn Party. She always had the best wry one-liners. And she always, always would come over to check on me. Not just on how I was doing then, in the moments of sometimes craziness, but with life. --Sandra

It’s been lovely to share memories of our time with Lori, how she loved being part of these [knitting] groups. I hope Lori can feel our love and admiration of her friendship, her sage advice and her wry sense of humor. --Lynn

I have known Lori for more than 16 years. Lori was unique, smart and intelligent. Her passion and dedication to her work was admirable. You will be missed, Lori. Rest in peace. --Sonia Arce