Bifocal: Tell us a little about your career and the issues you’ve been working on for the past few years.
Let me start by saying what an honor it is to be joining the ABA COLA team. I have always had an interest in advocacy for what I perceived as marginalized populations, particularly those experiencing some level of diminished capacity. This initially began with my older sister, who has a developmental disability, followed by a high school sweetheart involved in a serious motorcycle accident resulting in a traumatic brain injury, and then later in life, when my family provided home and end-of-life care for my grandmother, who battled with Alzheimer’s Disease. Over the years, my interest and passion for advocacy has expanded tremendously to include individuals across the lifespan with some level of diminished capacity, but more recently with an increased awareness of the intersectionality of disability, aging, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, rural vs. urban demographics, and so on.
As for my career path into law and aging, it was a bit of a scenic route. While an undergrad in college, my young interest in law and policy was overshadowed by my love for the performing arts. After receiving my BFA in Musical Theater from Avila University, I went on to pursue an MFA in Dance from the University of Colorado - Boulder, which ultimately landed me as Director of the Dance Program at the University of Northern Colorado - Greeley. After nearly eight years in Colorado and in effort to be closer to family, I returned to the Midwest as Director of Dance at Kansas State University, and just three years later…landed myself in law school at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. I joke a lot about how I landed in law because I grew weary of wearing Lycra and eating sprouts, but the truth is that I had always been fascinated by law and that seemingly intangible knowledge that people who I observed making legislative and policy decisions about the rules and regulations that guided my everyday life seemed to have. I longed to be a part of that world and to advocate for meaningful progress and change in “the pursuit of happiness” and “justice for all.”
I began my law career as a land use and property law litigator but was lucky enough to land at a small law firm that supported my interest and niche practice representing adults with developmental disabilities who were experiencing overreaching, unnecessary, or abusive guardianships. Over time, that evolved into a full-time practice, doing public policy work for the Kansas Developmental Disabilities Council focused on guardianship, abuse, neglect, and exploitation issues, and my founding Midwest Advocacy for Disability Rights.
Prior to joining the ABA COLA team, I served as Deputy Director of the Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council (MODDC). In addition to day-to-day operation responsibilities, my focus at MODDC was on adult guardianship law and related justice system navigation and accommodations. A large portion of my guardianship work centered around the work of Missouri’s WINGS, serving on its Legislative Drafting Committee since 2011. I was also heavily engaged in the work of Missouri’s Supported Decision-Making Consortium, Victimization Task Force, and served as an adjunct professor at UMKC School of Law where I co-instruct Leadership in Disability Studies: A Multi-disciplinary Approach for many years. I resigned my position as Chair of the Missouri State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when I moved to the D.C. area, but hope to be able to continue similar civil rights work here in the District.
Bifocal: That's quite an impressive and varied history. Is this what you planned when you started Law School?
Not quite. My drive when I started law school had more to do with a general interest in helping marginalized populations who had little-to-no access to the those in positions of decision-making power. At the time, I thought that meant getting a law degree and becoming a legislator. After all, I had watched a lot of late night C-SPAN and my then young, law student self, thought nearly all the action took place in legislative proceedings of the United States federal government. That myth was quickly dispelled, assisted by one of my favorite law courses at the time, LAW 641R: Legislation. It was shortly thereafter that I recall reading one of my law textbooks and coming across a case titled, Moran v. Board of Directors, School District of Kansas City, 584 S.W.2d 154 (Mo. Ct. App. 1979). Until that very moment, I had never really appreciated the legal and due process challenges my parents had faced advocating for basic rights and quality of life and education for my sister, given her disabilities. My final semester in law school, my sister was sexually assaulted by a first cousin, who preyed upon her disability and vulnerabilities. I observed first-hand the challenges and lack of support, services, and reasonable accommodations available to victims with diminished capacity in our judicial system. The culmination of these events dramatically changed my legal lens and the trajectory of my legal career.
Bifocal: Understandably so. Thank you for sharing that. It's interesting how our life experiences, good or bad, can change our trajectory. Elizabeth, what has been the highlight of your career?
Joining the ABA COLA team is my current highlight (of course!). I am honored to be working with such a talented team. Charlie Sabatino, David Godfrey, Trisha Bullock, and Sonia Arce…they’re all wonderful to work with. As a litigator, the highlight of my career has been advocating for the rights of individuals under unnecessary and/or overreaching guardianships. Two cases come to mind.
The first involved a young woman in her early 20’s, diagnosed with Asperger’s named “Caroline.” Her mother had resigned as limited guardian when Caroline began online dating and engaged in relationships with individuals the mother did not approve. This eventually resulted in the public administrator filing for plenary guardianship, removing her from her part time job, taking away her check book and debit cards, and placing Caroline in an institutional setting, despite there being no medical or behavioral justification for the placement. We were eventually successful in having an out-of-state family friend appointed as limited guardian and within a year thereafter, the guardianship removed, with Caroline’s rights fully restored. She is now living independently, working, and thriving.
The second case involved Alma, a 55-year-old with Down syndrome who had been placed in a rural nursing home, despite the availability of much less restrictive alternatives. Her guardian would frequently restrict visitation and not allow Alma to leave the facility, due to trust concerns with other family members. Alma was also not allowed to have a telephone or other assistive technology to help with communication and counter the social isolation. She experienced several slip and falls, unexplained bruising and injuries, and other health concerns requiring hospitalization. The only obstacle to moving Alma to a less restrictive and safe setting was her guardian. In many ways, Alma was a victim of what I have found to be a common mindset about disability and aging, particularly in rural areas where there are limited options for support and services. Often, the neglect and isolation isn’t malicious, but rather the result of societal inequalities caused by a lack of knowledge, availability, and access to resources. It was truly a privilege to represent the team of siblings that helped to get Alma out of the nursing home, under new and much less restrictive guardianship, and into a home with support staff and roommates of her choosing. It was a difficult and complex case to navigate, but undoubtedly a highlight of my career thus far.
Bifocal: I must say, your passion for the issues themselves and for the individuals directly impaced by the issues is undeniable. What interested you about this position with the Commission on Law and Aging?
I believed the role and responsibilities of this position nearly perfectly fit the culmination of both my personal and legal experience up to this point in my career. My work in Missouri and Kansas over the last several years has focused almost exclusively on guardianship, supported decision-making, abuse, neglect and exploitation issues, and equal access to justice. It truly is my passion. I had been a long-time and very active member of MO WINGS and had participated in many of the COLA WINGS online meetings over the last year or so, and really valued the discussions and insights that came from those communications. I’ve also been a long-time admirer of the many resources and research developed by the ABA COLA team, particularly around guardianship, supported decision-making, and capacity issues. While I loved my work and team at MODDC, I distinctly remember reading the first several sentences of the vacancy announcement when it came across my email. It stated that COLA was seeking someone to provide “substantive support and expertise to the Commission in the areas of guardianship, supported decision-making, capacity issues, elder abuse…” I remember thinking to myself that this is exactly what I want to be doing at this point in my career and I was excited by the potential opportunity to work with Charlie Sabatino, David Godfrey, and the COLA network partners. As I stated a bit earlier, it is truly an honor, and I am thrilled to be a part of the COLA team.
Bifocal: And the projects and research continues! What project(s) with the Commission are you most excited about?
I am particularly excited for the 4th National Guardianship Summit and the recommendations resulting from discussions with the nation’s leadership in the guardianship field. Summit participants generate key recommendations on cutting-edge issues in law, practice, education, and research, with a significant track record of impact and reform. I am excited to have the opportunity to take part in future implementation of those recommendations and working toward reform that maximizes autonomy and ensures accountability. I am also excited about the potential of a Guardianship Court Improvement Program and finding creative and progressive ways to support states’ efforts to reduce unnecessary and overreaching guardianships, and to reform and strengthen State adult guardianship systems.
Bifocal: Exciting projects indeed. Outside of work, are there any other hobbies or interests that you are passionate about that you’d like to share with us?
Sure! My favorite times have always been spent with close friends and family at the family lake house down in the Ozarks of Missouri. I love to hike, kayak with the sun rising over the smooth and sometimes foggy water, and just about all things outdoors. I have been blessed with an amazing and fun-loving family. We’re a tight-knit, taco-loving, singing-and-dancing, love all-things-Irish crew who genuinely enjoys spending time together, so time with them is always high on my priority list. Although I traded-in the Lycra and tap shoes years ago, I still have a strong love of dance. West Coast Swing is my current favorite, so I welcome recommendations for classes or events in the D.C. area. There are also few volunteer organizations in the Kansas City area, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Harvesters, that I’m particularly passionate about. I hope to be able to continue with similar volunteer programs here in the D.C. area. I am a true believer that “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” (Ruth Bader Ginsberg). To that end, I am passionate about doing what I can take those steps, however small or large they might be.
Bifocal: Elizabeth, thank for spending this time with me today. We are very excited to have you join our team and look forward to benefiting from your expertise and getting to know you even better.