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June 10, 2024

Inspiration, Justice and Hope for the Future: My NALC Experience

Karen Buck
The PDF which includes endnotes and footnotes in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 45 Issue5.

Throughout the 25 years of my public interest law career, there have been only two conferences which were my enduring favorites and meant the most to me each year. One is the National Aging and Law Conference or NALC.  Why? For those of us serving older Americans, I have found it is the place to brainstorm solutions to poverty, abuse, ageism, and injustice with the nation’s premiere leaders and most zealous advocates, creating new and strengthening existing relationships and partnerships. That's why attending the 2024 NALC at the University of Miami Law School, the first in-person convening since the pandemic, was a priority for me.  And why I encouraged two judges from Pennsylvania who lead our state’s elder justice initiatives to take time from their busy dockets to attend and present on our work with our Supreme Court (more on that later). 

The 2024 NALC was notably different from the dozens I've attended in the past, all of which have been held in the D.C. area and usually involved numerous pre-meetings with fellow advocates on Capitol Hill, with ACL, and other leaders.  Being in Miami this year was different, intimate and yes, tropical. (Miami experienced record-breaking heat with a heat index of 112 degrees - even my Floridian friends were complaining, but the A/C was delightful). The law school's campus was lush and lovely, and the opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues I’ve not seen in person since the pandemic and to build new relationships with advocates across the country -- all invested deeply in seeking justice for older Americans — priceless.

This Conference was the first hosted by the new Director of the Commission on Law and Aging, Erica Costello. In her introductory remarks, Erica joked that she was an attorney, not an event planner.  One would never know.  She and the ABA team from COLA, the Senior Lawyers Committee, and The Center for Public Interest Law, including Trisha Bullock, Jessica Brock, Jacob Rasch and Tracey Moore, were meticulously prepared, calm, cool and unflappable, even in the Miami heat. 

I was proud to present at this year’s NALC about our bold and successful initiatives in elder justice and guardianship reform in Pennsylvania, with my esteemed colleagues Judge Lois Murphy and Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Advisory Council on Elder Justice. How fortunate are those of us who have members of the Bench who care deeply about and step up to advocate for due process, fairness and access to justice, going beyond their daily roles and responsibilities as jurists and helping to make transformational change.

Our session, Judicial Leadership in Transforming Guardianship, outlined our state’s powerful elder justice initiatives over the past 10 years, led by our Chief Justice Debra Todd -- the first female Chief Justice in our Court’s 300-year history -- and an inspirational leader. From our seminal 2014 Report with over 130 recommendations to lay the foundation for improvements in access to justice for older Pennsylvanians, to judicial trainings and detailed bench books for every PA judge on elder abuse and guardianship, creation of an Office of Elder Justice at the Supreme Court level, ambitious legislative initiatives and rule changes, launching the state’s first Elder Justice Resource Center, the award-winning statewide multi-million dollar Guardianship Tracking System, successful advocacy for right to counsel (newly passed as Act 61 and signed by Governor Shapiro months ago), and a 3-year ACL guardianship reform grant with pilot legal services projects, expansive outreach, family and professional focus groups and video educational series for diverse audiences, and continuing cutting-edge guardianship data enhancements, we have accomplished a great deal in Pennsylvania, and we are far from finished. And from NALC we bring back even more aspirational strategies for the future.

My colleague Judge Lois Murphy, who speaks on elder justice around the state and country, described her experience at NALC 2024 as “inspiring and energizing.”  She adds: “It is always good to share with others around the country the progress we have made in Pennsylvania on elder justice issues.  At the same time, we learned from so many others about excellent reforms and best practices to consider implementing.   As a result, we have come home with even more ideas about important work to do to promote justice for older adults.”

I was inspired and moved by so many of the stellar presentations by colleagues from states and tribal lands near and far. And isn't this the epitome of why we travel to be with others? To be in a place with over 100 diverse professionals who are passionate about justice for older Americans is a gift. As was continuing to explore how we can develop an elder abuse shelter in Pennsylvania from the example of the Weinberg Center and its team in New York led by Deirdre Lok. Meeting the dynamic Georgia leadership team of Judge Carrie Markham and Tracy Johnson, who presented with my friend of many years, mediation guru/Professor/Dean Ellie Lanier, has inspired us to consider launching a guardianship mediation program (and learning further from them). Margaret Carson engrossed us with creative Native American elder abuse programs she has led which involve and honor the victim, family and tribe, with humor and grace. CFPB’s Lisa Schifferle and South Carolina Legal Services’ Susan Ingles shared collaborative and vibrant programs and resources to fight financial exploitation and mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (a crisis they and many of us respond to every day). Sally Hurme and Erica Costello envisioned the future of individuals under guardianship, including recommendations from the 4th National Guardianship Summit (to which I was honored to serve as Delegate for the ABA).

And it is always a pleasure to be with and hear from the legendary Charlie Sabatino, long-serving former COLA Director, who presented with Judge Patrick Woodward and disability rights attorney Megan Rusciano, and inspired us to question and improve our roles, state rules, and assumptions when representing clients with incapacity, including under R. 1.14, which they transformed in Maryland. The quality of every presentation was remarkable. Kudos to all presenters who shared their expertise with all of us.

And what a joy to see my colleagues from so many states from Hawaii to Maine at the National Association of Senior Legal Hotlines (NASLH) annual meeting, which we have held at NALC for the past many years. We honored Mary Haberland, recently retired leader of the Florida Senior Legal Helpline (FSLH) and Managing Attorney at Bay Area Legal Services, with the Shoshanna Ehrlich Excellence in Senior Legal Hotline Advocacy Award, established in 2016 (when I had the honor of presenting it to Shoshanna herself at NALC eight years ago). When the FSLH started in 2005, Staff Attorney Ellen Cheek shared in presenting the award, it received 52 calls and opened 5 cases. In 2023, when Mary retired after 38 years with Bay Area Legal Services, the FSLH received 41,198 calls, opening 2,918 cases. Under Mary's leadership, the FSLH advised in a staggering 36,288 cases. Ellen’s emotional account of the immense growth and sophistication of the services provided through Mary’s leadership and expansion of their team reflected beautifully on the legacy of Shoshanna, also a Floridian, the godmother of senior legal hotlines, who helped launch and support countless programs around the country, including ours in Pennsylvania, and which together serve hundreds of thousands of older Americans each year. (What a treat to have Shoshanna again join us in person.)  Don’t have a senior legal hotline/helpline in your state to provide free, accessible legal advice, information and advocacy for older adults regardless of zip code? Call Mike Walters, esteemed Chair of NASLH, at Pro Seniors in Ohio. 

This year’s conference theme was “The Future of Aging,” which has me thinking about the future of this work we do in law, justice and aging. In addition to our Pennsylvania judicial leaders, I was excited to be joined at this year’s NALC by our Borchard Fellow and SeniorLAW Center Staff Attorney Valerie Snow. Valerie graduated Penn Law, took the bar exam and began her legal career virtually during the pandemic in 2020, launching our justice in guardianship program in her first year of (100% remote) practice. “After attending NALC virtually several times, being in-person this year was a very welcome and valuable experience. For me, the highlights were connecting with the other Borchard Fellows and networking with other legal aid attorneys focused on representing guardianship respondents,” she shared. “I also appreciated learning about innovations and best practices from around the country during the many wonderful plenary and breakout sessions.” Many thanks to Mary Jane Ciccarello and the Borchard Foundation Center on Law and Aging for their stellar and generous support of young attorneys in our field, investing in future leaders.

I couldn’t have imagined a NALC without David Godfrey, my friend and colleague of over 20 years, whom I met long ago when he directed the Legal Helpline for Older Kentuckians, and who has led NALC for the past decade. David, recently retired from the ABA and as Director of COLA in January, was deeply missed this year (holidaying with his husband post-retirement in rural France was an apt alternative). But Erica, who became the new COLA Director just months ago, and her team created their own unique event which gave us the opportunity to be renewed and inspired. And in so doing, is launching a new generation of leaders to join those of us who have been doing this for a few decades and are beginning to join the generations we have been serving. Transitions, new opportunities, hope, inspiration. 

I hope to see you at next year's NALC and be inspired anew.

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Karen Buck

SeniorLAW Center

Karen Buck is the Executive Director of the nonprofit public interest organization SeniorLAW Center, which seeks justice for older people using the power of the law, educating the community and advocating on local, state and national levels.